There are quite a few people in my circles who aren’t too fond of all the demonstrations which have been going on. In their minds, all demonstrations related to racial issues are “riots,” and all of the demonstrations are lead by leftist, Marxist, communist, anarchists. Many of the same criticisms conservatives once levied against the abolitionist or Civil Rights leaders of old are being reused against those claiming to fight racial injustice today. It’s certainly possible that the movement today is of a different character than it was the last several times movements arose in the face of racial upheaval. But it’s also possible that we conservatives who have always sought to conserve the status quo and our power have the same modus operandi today as we’ve always had. It’s possible that we are denying injustice in order to preserve our position, just as we’ve always done. Time will tell, I suppose, as hindsight will eventually make current events more clear. But until then, I think it’s important to have a good dose of honest and difficult self-reflection.
While I don’t know whether or not my conservative community is wrong in its majority assessment of the current events, I do want to speak into my community and highlight an inconsistency which I find rather bothersome. One of the most used arguments I see from Christians against the current social movement is that to join one’s voice in the outcry is to jettison, forego, or downplay the gospel. To join the movement decrying injustice and calling for societal change is to embrace the social gospel. To join the movement is to declare that the gospel is not enough. What the world really needs is not social change or the social gospel. What the world really needs right now is the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is only the gospel which transforms hearts. The argument here is that the eternal is more important than the temporal, and that if you get your eternal priorities straight, a change of your heart and spiritual focus will change your actions. If you accept the gospel of Christ you will also change your actions. If we just get everyone saved, racism will diminish. It is the gospel which changes society, not social movements, so we ought to spend our time accordingly. At the same time, my conservative community has chided others for being judgmental about self-proclaimed Christians both past and present. When the President’s Christianity and politicized use of religion is called into question based on his actions, that’s wrongheaded. Who can judge? Even though Paul tells us to judge those who claim to be inside the church, Jesus tells us that we’ll know believers by their fruit, and various apostles warn against false teachers – we declare certain professing Christians to be off-limits for critique. We can’t touch those who have power to offer our group. Criticism is illegitimate if it’s against those who can preserve and elevate our power. The withholding of judgment also extends to heroes and leaders of our faith and nation who are no longer with us. As my community lambasts and condemns “misguided” or “wicked” demonstrators and their supposedly universal and innate affinity for anarchy, we at the same time defend statues and symbols representing institutions and people who spent their lifetimes oppressing others through orderly structures – exerting their power to own, sell, beat, rape, and oppress humans made in the image of God.
Perhaps you don’t see the double standard yet, so let me explain. In one breath we are told, just as MLK was by the religious leaders of his day, that we must have patience. Injustice doesn’t really exist, and even if it did, we should endure that injustice in the hope that society will somehow transform itself one day through a slow heart change. We must wait for the gospel transformation of individuals. We must preach the gospel alone – a gospel we’ve distilled down to only its intellectual component – because when our hearts are changed so will our actions be. And when enough individuals change their actions, that’s societal change. To act otherwise is to deny the power of the gospel and to sacrifice the message of Christ for the means of the pragmatic.
My group essentially says that we can’t look at current or past individuals in our power narrative who claimed to be Christians and judge them by whether or not the gospel has changed them. The whole of the South under slavery and Jim Crow – the self-proclaimed “Bible Belt” – were “Christians.” And because we want to keep Whitefield, Washington, and Lee, we’re stuck taking all the slaveholding or slave promoting Christians at their word, unable to judge any based on their egregious participation in chattel slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, and segregation. So we say that the gospel will transform individuals and societies, yet in the same breath we acknowledge that we can’t expect the gospel to actually transform anyone. If the gospel didn’t transform our greatest heroes, how could we expect it to transform our neighbors – or us? The gospel changes lives, but we can’t judge whether the gospel has been accepted by someone because it may not have changed their life. If the slaveholding, Christian South is normative, the gospel is very unlikely to change one’s life or society. In fact, the assessment one would make from this 300 year anecdote is rather that the “gospel” is more likely to enable and entrench wicked injustice through its religious structure than it is to transform hearts and society. So which is it? Is the gospel transformative or not? Because if it’s not, we’re peddling false hope when we tell others to wait on the gospel to change society.
In American history it has been the mainstream Christian community which has tended to be changed by society, not the other way around, at least on the issue of race. The church has seen both abolition and integration only in their rearview mirrors, as they’ve been carried along by the progress of social change. While there were always smaller groups of Christians present and vocal for each movement, the broad swath of those who claimed to be gospel believing Christians condoned or accepted the unjust society as it was. It was only the fringe groups (e.g. Quakers and pacifists), those deemed “liberal” Christians, humanists, the flamboyant (e.g. Charles Finney), and those from the oppressed class themselves who sought change and fostered the atmosphere for government to make the change mandatory. It wasn’t the mainstream conservative church. And with both abolition and integration it was ultimately the government, through force, which made the so-called “gospel preaching church” change its tune. In summary, it has been the work of groups outside the mainstream church, or odd individuals swimming against the stream within the church, which have fostered true change – the very groups and people we did and still do accuse of not preaching or adhering to the gospel today.
Now I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place here because I agree with my community that the true gospel changes lives. I also believe that we are all sinners capable of being blinded to our sins, especially those sins to which our culture clings. I know my own heart and it is powerfully deceptive. In essence, I agree with my community’s assessment that the gospel transforms and that we’re all imperfect, but I disagree with them on their application in at least three different ways.
1. The gospel is not merely intellectual.
If you read the gospels you’ll discover that Jesus talks about the gospel and the Kingdom of God well before his death and resurrection. The Kingdom is something more broad than an intellectual assent to some abstract proposition. The Kingdom is a life lived out. That’s why my favorite evangelistic verses, Ephesians 2:8-9, say that we’re saved by grace through faith, but verse 10 (which I always conveniently left off while evangelizing) says that in our salvation we are saved unto good works. It’s why James can have a discourse about the importance of faith, but also conclude that works are important. In fact, in James 2:24 he says, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” Jesus tells us that we must abide in him (Jn. 15), being a wise man who builds his house on a rock means doing the works of Jesus (Mt. 7), and the list could go on. The gospel of the Kingdom of God is not just intellectual assent, but volitional action. The Kingdom entails a life lived, not just momentary belief.
Let me be clear, as I know some in my group are picking up stones right now. I know that as with Martin Luther, any talk of James or works riles us up. So let me affirm that the gospel of Jesus Christ and the salvation it brings is a pure gift. We cannot earn the Kingdom of God. Faith alone provides us entry to the Kingdom. However, the gospel is more robust than simple mental assent because the gospel is the transforming power of Jesus and his Spirit within us. If we truly bow our knee to a new Lord, our lives will be changed. While works do not save us, they are inevitabilities of those who are saved.
In our current context then, it seems absurd to say that we must wait on the gospel to transform people, and then when we see people acting as though they are transformed, we criticize them for not trusting in the gospel. When people begin repenting for their participation in racism, marching alongside black brothers and sisters who are crying out from their experience, standing up for the oppressed, risking their social capital to speak out, humbling themselves before their brothers and sisters who are offended by statues and symbols, and all of that good stuff – my group is calling it a “subversion of the gospel.” But if the gospel doesn’t lead you to action and merely remains mental assent, is it really the gospel? Is it the gospel to help some in need, like the unborn, while ignoring the plight of other groups? Would we be happier if all Christians refused participation in seeking racial justice and simply went to church every other Sunday for the rest of their lives? Is the gospel showing up to church, agreeing with its doctrinal statement, giving 2% of our income to keep the lights on, and voting every four years?
This charge I hear so frequently of “subverting the gospel” is an equivocation on the word “gospel.” The gospel is to transform lives, but when it transforms lives in ways which threaten our power and comfort, my group switches the definition of gospel to mean “only a message preached” – pure mental assent. We shift the gospel from the holistic, Kingdom, biblical sense, to only its intellectual sense. We equivocate so we can dismiss acts and movements we don’t like. If the gospel marches you up to an abortion clinic, this is the gospel, and the gospel is more than mere mental assent because action, in this case, aligns with our political power structure. But if it leads you towards racial reconciliation, then you must have moved beyond the gospel, so go back to your church and just talk about the issue. To me such equivocation and shifting of terminology seems self-seeking and duplicitous, though I believe it is subconscious for many. We are so entrenched in our views, politics, and structures that we believe and promote that which props up the foundation we’ve already laid rather than searching our hearts, listening to other brothers and sisters, and discerning our biases.
2. Evolution is a Christian principle.
I grew up in a Christian tradition which emphasized faith and the believer’s prayer. It was a pretty good deal. If I sincerely had faith in Jesus and his work, then all my sins were absolved and I could enjoy eternity in bliss. But having accepted Jesus by faith at a very young age, I came to struggle with my salvation upon reaching middle school because I saw the loophole. How did I know if I sincerely believed? I mean, I know I prayed the prayer, and in fact I prayed it several times throughout the years just in case I wasn’t sincere enough the first time. But how did I ever know if I was sincerely placing my faith in Jesus rather than just saying the words or pragmatically using him for my benefit (we called that “fire insurance”)?
I struggled with security for a good portion of my life until after college, when I came to read a concept from a renowned Christian which continues to stick with me. The Christian, whose name I have forgotten, essentially said that the evidence of true, saving faith is that a believer will continually bow the knee to Christ as he is revealed in the believer’s life. In other words, there will be a moral trajectory upwards in a true Christian’s life. This doesn’t mean a true Christian will be perfect or that there will never be roller-coaster moments with a temporary downward trend. It also doesn’t mean that it is the good works which save or which keep one saved. Rather, it means that on the whole, the Spirit of Christ and his community will do its job of convicting and empowering the believer, and a believer who has bowed the knee to Jesus’s lordship and who is convicted and empowered will repent and obey. A believer’s life will continually be transformed.
I think the life of Peter is a great example of this transformation. If you ask the question, “when was Peter saved?” you could come up with a number of answers. Was Peter saved when he followed Jesus the first time? That was a pretty big decision. Was it when he first proclaimed Christ was Lord? Was he saved before the betrayal, or did his betrayal prove he wasn’t saved? Was it when he saw the resurrected Christ, or was it after Jesus taught them the true meaning of his death and resurrection? Could Peter really have been saved before he could assent to Christ’s death and resurrection, the core of the gospel? There are plenty of moments in Peter’s life which seem like true Christian moments, and other moments which make Peter seem morally deviant or ignorant of Christ’s true lordship. But if you look at Peter’s faith in Christ as a developing relationship, you can see his upward trend. We see this even after Christ’s ascension, as Peter foolishly plays favoritism with the Jews over the Gentiles until Paul reprimands him and Peter repents. Ultimately, Peter becomes a martyr for Christ. While other “believers” left Jesus when he said weird stuff or didn’t bring the Kingdom how they thought he should, Peter persisted and trended upwards.
While I would never advocate that a follower of Christ be perfect, the outworking of the intellectual component of assent to Jesus as Lord will look like a life of continued repentance and transformation. True Christians, when confronted with their egregious sins, will repent like David did before Nathan’s accusation. Others will sear their consciences and blaspheme the work of the Holy Spirit. To not work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling and to refuse being snatched away from hellfire by our brothers and sisters who confront us is be reckless with our souls. While none of us can ultimately judge the state of another’s soul, we are called to judge ourselves and to judge those inside the church. Like the unrepentant man in I Corinthians 5, we should be quick to confront evil and demand change not only for the sake of the testimony and purity of the Church, but for the sake of the other’s soul as well. If the gospel isn’t transforming a life, then it’s likely that the seed has been trampled on or choked out, and the gospel has yet to truly take root.
3. The Church thrives in weakness.
Philippians 2 has been one of my favorite Bible passages for a few years now. If you’re not familiar with it, you should go check it out. Paul essentially tells believers that we are to have the same mindset as Christ, which he goes on to describe as an emptying of self and agenda in order to humble ourselves and serve. It is arrogant to think that the body of Christ in the world (i.e. the church) would function any differently than Christ’s body did while he walked this earth. We are promised cross and persecution and we are told that we are to humble ourselves and serve. The servant is not greater than his master, and Paul explicitly lays that out for us here in Philippians 2 where we are told how we are to be like Christ.
Yet the church has taken on itself the hideous role of powermonger. The church has become a monstrosity. We vie for power, compromise morals, slander opponents, laud evildoers if they fight our enemies for us, and vitriolically judge those outside the church. And most appallingly, we do all of this in the name of God, claiming that the ends we’re so sure he wants (which conveniently align with the ends we want) justify discarding the means which he gave us to use. For political gain and religious freedom we sacrifice the body of the Son of Man – we defile the church. I understand the impetus towards political power and away from sacrifice and self-denial. Worldly power is alluring. Who doesn’t want to be like God in defining and dictating good and evil? It’s the original sin. But the church is not a god who decrees its own dictates, it is to be a servant to the means of God. The church should be the one place where the temptation of false and idolatrous methodology is quelled, because it’s the place where we are able to embrace death in light of resurrection – the firstfruits of which is our very head, Jesus himself.
It is in our willingness to refuse powers that call us to worship false gods of state, leaders, and politics which sanctifies us in this world. We can call a spade a spade and we can sit out the fight in the world’s eyes as we trust in God. We can simply march around the walls rather than besiege them. We can pray for fire from heaven rather than look for some flint. We can find God in the still small voice rather than in the raging tempest, knowing that he preserves a remnant and will be victorious in the end. When we’ve done all we can do within the means of God, we can patiently wait in faith. In our refusal to accept the powerful idols of this world, the church shows forth her beauty and true power. The purity of the church is of utmost importance to her witness, which is why she must avoid the “whore of Babylon” or the “beast” as Revelation puts it – the allure of the state and the power it promises. Instead of becoming beasts ourselves, we must become conformed to the image of the Son of Man – the true human, and incarnate him to the world as his body.
Being incarnational and in the world as Jesus was is one vital component to witness, of course. But incarnation without sanctification is worthless. Jesus is not our hope simply because he became incarnate, but because in his incarnation he maintained his holiness. The incarnation was the means whereby Christ pulled us up to the ultimate end of sanctification and glorification through the imputation of our sins to him, and his holiness to us. He pulled us up to himself. The church is to do the same. We are to be in the world rescuing souls, but the only way we will be able to rescue them is if we provide them a depiction of a Kingdom of solace, peace, and refuge distinct from the world and its lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life. We must maintain our purity so that in our incarnation we can provide a picture of hope. For what hope is it to preach a message which only applies to the intellect and can’t be seen to actually transform? Yes, we will fail and fall, but then we must be the first to confess and repent. Our community must be distinct for our incarnation to be effective.
That’s one of the beauties of the current social movement. Unlike the presidential elections which pit evils against evils, many of the current demonstrations don’t require any such thing. I’ve been to three demonstrations so far, and the two run by OneRace and the And Campaign (both Christian organizations) were great. There were people from all sorts of denominations, including many churches from my conservative denomination. There was worship, prayer, a call to unity, repentance, and forgiveness, and there was love. While the demonstrations are a call for change, they aren’t about domineering power (at least not the Christian ones). They’re about justice and reconciliation. Each demonstration was a depiction of the Kingdom, as the Church came together in love and action. It was one picture – one form of the gospel lived out.
I think many in my community deny that the power of God often looks like this – like repentance, forgiveness, death, humility, and submission. We say that these things are ideals we value, but just look at how much we encourage them or implement them. We intellectually assent to these stated values, but we don’t volitionally act on them. Even more telling, look at how much we value these attributes in our politics. Our idols don’t like the aroma of oblations offered to the living God because those sacrifices undermine the idol’s control. We have therefore stopped making such sacrifices to God, lest our other gods become mad. The church has been in power for so long we’ve begun to think that domineering power and force are normal while repentance and forgiveness are weak offerings. We can’t stand any threat to our idols. When our history or our forefathers are questioned, like the slaveholding Whitfield, Lee, and Washington, we must hold fast. We can’t, in humility, admit that we don’t see how such men could be Christians while living a lifetime adhering to a gospel which didn’t transform their lives from such egregious sins. God, in his grace, may have saved those men, but why do we need to elevate them and cling to them with a closed fist? It’s because an assault on the certainty of our past is an assault on our narrative and our power. To judge the past based on the gospel and to question our forefathers is to undermine our foundation for power today. We know that if those who were great in so many ways can be harshly judged by the gospel, the implications for our own lives and need for repentance unto action would possibly be even greater. We don’t want our great forefathers to be in need of the gospel lest their need expose our own need.
This is exactly the same reason our president, Republican congressmen and women, and the Republican party can’t be questioned in my circles. In other circles you can just switch the party here and apply it all the same. Wherever you are, to question the power of your group implies that there is fallibility, and when you’re fighting on the side you perceive is morally superior, you can’t show any weakness. Morality is objective, we Christians know that. We arrogantly believe that our assessments of that morality, along with our assessments of which morals are worth elevating to the highest levels, are also objective and without bias or self-interest. We cannot show weakness in humility, questioning, doubt, dialogue, or anything else. We certainly can’t be like Christ. As Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump’s spiritual advisers said in an interview when asked whether he wants his candidate to embody the Sermon on the Mount, said, “‘Heck no.’ I would run from that candidate as far as possible because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation. Nowhere is government told to forgive those who wrong it, nowhere is government commanded to turn the other cheek. Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find, and I believe that’s Biblical.”
Christ-likeness is not power in our eyes, therefore the church and her people are powerless without the strong arm of the government. Everyone knows that. Jeffress and the rest of the conservative Christian community proclaim that it isn’t the gospel which transforms lives and society, it’s the government. The church has proven this over and over, as it has had to be carried along by a coercive government in abolition, women’s suffrage, integration, and Civil Rights. What Christians proclaim with our mouths, we deny with our actions. We know where true power lies and we only tell others to avoid politics and “just preach the gospel” as a pacifier for movements which threaten our own power. The conservative church doesn’t advocate political patience on abortion, homosexuality, or religious freedom. On those issues, “preach the gospel” is insufficient. Come November, “preach the gospel” will become “vote Republican” in my circles. Me and my group want more than intellectual assent for our little “k” kingdoms we have carved out. No, we want meaningful, transformative, tangible action and power in those kingdoms. Yet for issues promoted by others and viewed as a threat to our power, the gospel alone (meaning the intellectual gospel without action) is the only acceptable course of “action” for them.
Needless to say, I’m frustrated with where my group is at the moment. I’m disheartened that the integrity I’ve been raised to value has been so easily discarded. I’m disappointed with how we use the gospel as a weapon to wield on others as a pacifier rather than as an illuminating light and a purifying fire with which we ourselves wrestle daily. I’m frustrated with the political and material idolatry of my community and my own heart, and I hate that the church’s weakness, which is its true strength, is tossed to the side.
So is the gospel enough? Which gospel do you mean? Do you mean the gospel of intellectual assent, isolated from action? Do you mean the social gospel of action isolated from the lordship of Christ? It all really depends on what you mean by “gospel.” If you mean intellectual assent with volitional action, if you mean believing and turning towards the good, if you mean embracing the means of God and not defining good, evil, and power for ourselves – then yes, the gospel is enough. In the end, I know that the true gospel transforms and I pray that it transforms me more and more each day. But I also know that this transformation isn’t merely intellectual, but volitional. When we are transformed by the gospel we will bear fruit. We will not look the same tomorrow as we look today, nor will we do the same things tomorrow as we do today. At the same time, I don’t know how to ultimately judge those ancestors of ours who have egregiously sinned in the past, nor can I ultimately judge the salvation of those who bear no fruit now. But I can choose on what things to dwell. I will dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy,” I will think about such things. If the gospel preached uncovers darkness and if I find evil or falsehood, I will not dwell on or support those things, whether they be in my life or in the lives of others -whether they help me gain or preserve power, or not. The gospel transforms, that is true. But it does so only through repentance from sin and transformation unto the light. I agree that the gospel is the only hope we truly have, but only if that gospel is the whole gospel.