Category Archives: Gospel

Do Our Churches Preach Cheap Grace?

The gospel always leads to righteousness. Grace always leads to life. Having been reconciled to God by Jesus’ death, we are enabled to practice love, justice, mercy and peace through the indestructible power of his life.

Grace that fails to produce such righteousness is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It rests on the illusion that grace involves endless affirmation and endless forgiveness. It conflates salvation with justification, the gospel with the forgiveness of sins. It seems loving to us, but it expresses the easy kind of love that costs us nothing. It proclaims the comfort of the gospel but robs it of its power to give life.

Christians often counter the danger of cheap grace by emphasizing that, having been saved through Christ, we are now called to demonstrate our gratitude to God by obeying his law. Yet emphasizing a return to the law merely distorts our understanding of the Christian life. It tempts us to view our practice of righteousness merely as a response to the gospel, rather than as the working of the gospel itself in our lives. It turns the practice of righteousness into a burden, an endless debt of gratitude that we can never possibly repay.

Just as dangerous, emphasizing a return to the law inevitably leads us to associate Christian discipleship with judgment and fear rather than with liberty and life. Confusing the call to righteousness with the demands of the law, we once again come face to face with its pronouncement of death. We become ashamed of our inevitable failures before one another. We bristle against those who would seek to keep us accountable. We resist the rigor of discipleship because we fear that it will rob us of the peace of God’s grace.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In these ways we lose sight of power of grace. We forget that by walking in the power of the Spirit, as hard and difficult as it is, we are walking the path of “life to the full” (John 10:10). We forget that while the way of sin and injustice is the way of slavery and death – even now, even during this life – the way of the Spirit is the way of liberty and life – even now, even this side of Christ’s return.

In short, we lose sight of just how much we are missing when we ignore the gospel’s active power to change and heal us, and so cease spurring one another to pursue the fullness of life in Christ with every fiber of our being.

The apostle Paul felt a tremendous burden to communicate this truth about the life-giving power of the gospel. Christ has not merely justified us by saving us from the wrath of God, he insisted. Rather, he has given us the gift of righteousness in order that we might “reign in life” (Romans 5:17). God raised Jesus from the dead in order that “we too may live a new life,” even now, even this side of the resurrection (6:4).

“Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” (6:15) That is the temptation of cheap grace. It is the call always to affirm a person, regardless of how miserable she might be in her way of life. It is a curtailed gospel, a gospel robbed of the power to grant life. It is well-intentioned, to be sure. It balks at calling a person to walk the hard path of discipleship because it fears that such a call will be heard as one of judgment and death.

And yet, Paul shows us, what calls us to the hard path of discipleship is not the law, but grace. It is not death, but life. After all, no benefit accrues to a person who continues to live in slavery to sin and its desires. “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” (6:21) Or as he puts it later, “The mind governed by the flesh is death” (8:6).

What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is not merely that God affirms them, regardless of their sin. What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is that God empowers them toward life in the Spirit. They need to know that the church will bear their burden with them as they walk this path.

There are far too many people in the church who “have a form of godliness but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). There are far too many who through their teaching “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4). We need to recover our confidence in the gospel’s truth that “if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness” (8:6, 9-10).

To be sure, we welcome all who confess their sins in a spirit of repentance, no matter what the sin. We celebrate the power of forgiveness even when it has already been granted seventy-times-seven (Matthew 18). We never give up on anyone.

But we remain the body of those who confess that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). At its core, our faith is in one whose life was so powerful that not even death could contain it. The good news is not only that we have been forgiven. It is that we are being changed.

And so, as sinful we remain, as much as we have to confess our sins and repent again every week, even every day, we do so in a spirit of hope. As much as the Christian life is inevitably a life of suffering and self-denial, we take up our cross and follow our Lord because his is the way of life. As Paul put it,

“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, … the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs … if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:14-17).

Making the Christian Life Good News Again: Freedom From the Law

I once heard the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Atlanta proclaim from his pulpit that “the essence of the Christian life consists in one word: lawkeeping.” It was a statement that reflected that pastor’s consistent emphasis in his ministry, and over time it devastated his congregation. I am yet to meet another pastor who agrees with the claim that the essence of the Christian life consists in lawkeeping.

And yet, I find the spirit of the claim reflected in sermons, books, and online articles over and over again: The heart of the Christian life is obedience to God’s law. The purpose of our justification is sanctification to God’s law. Christians need not fear putting God’s law at the heart and center of our lives because now that we have been saved, we can obey that law out of heartfelt desire rather than out of fear.

Now, let me be clear. There is an element of truth to all of these statements if they are understood correctly. Jeremiah promised that in the new covenant God would write his law on his people’s hearts (Jeremiah 31), and Jesus told his disciples, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

The problem with the constant emphasis on the law, however, is that too many Christians utterly fail to grasp the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus. And no, I’m not talking about the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus as far as our justification is concerned. I think most Reformed Christians get that. I’m talking about the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s moral character and will.

Jesus, not the law, is the ultimate expression of God’s will for humanity. Jesus embodies what it means to be a true human being. In his character and virtues we see what true human flourishing looks like. We see the sort of love and sacrificial service that creates genuine communion. We see the mercy and justice that brings reconciliation. We see the piety and patience that testifies to peace with God.

The New Testament pounds away at this theme so often it continues to baffle me that so many Christians miss it. On the one hand, some Christians worry that shifting our emphasis from the law to Christ constitutes some sort of antinomianism (lawlessness). On the other hand, some Christians fail to grasp just how thorough of a transformation the gospel calls us to, as individuals and communities, as the Spirit makes us like Jesus.

Take a look at a passage like 2 Corinthians 3, on which I heard an excellent sermon by Tom Groelsema just yesterday. Paul explains in vivid language how we are no longer under the law written on tablets of stone, what Paul calls the “ministry of death,” a covenant whose glory was terrifying even as it was ultimately fleeting. Rather, we have received the far more glorious ministry of the Spirit, the Spirit who gives us freedom as he transforms us, not according to the law, but into the likeness of Jesus. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all … beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

This is just one passage, but the New Testament pounds at this theme over and over. We could literally cite dozens of statements. We might as well declare that our prooftext is the entire New Testament. So why do so many Christians – and so many Christian pastors – miss it? Why does the “so what?” portion of so many Christian sermons sound like a return to the law? Why do so many Christians reduce their engagement with nonbelievers to witnessing to the law?

We are living in a time when most of our neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens no longer receive Christian moral teaching – especially when it pertains to matters revolving around sexuality – as conducive of a good life. When they hear Christians talk about life they primarily hear a message about arbitrary rules and judgment. God’s wrath is upon us because we have disobeyed his law, they hear, and only believing in Jesus can save us so that we can get back to the business of obeying his (seemingly arbitrary) law once again. The narrative starts with law and ends with law, and though there is some profound talk about Jesus and grace in the middle, it’s not with Jesus that this story usually ends.

People don’t become Christians because they fall in love with the Ten Commandments.

If we expect nonbelievers to hear the gospel as good news once again we need to recover our focus on Christ from the beginning to the end of our message. The Christian life does not consist in a story of law-gospel-law. We aren’t saved simply so that we can be placed back under the law once again. And the essence of the Christian life and of Christian witness does not consist in a witness to God’s law. The misery of sin need not have any dominance over us because we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). We can experience the fruit of the Spirit through “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” because “against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). We can walk in faith, hope, and love, rather than according to the desires of the flesh, which “keep you from doing the things you want to do,” because “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:18).

This freedom is what the Christian life is all about. It’s what so many of our family members, neighbors, and coworkers so desperately need to hear, because from beginning to end, it is truly good news.

Following Jesus in Every Area of Life

In his second essay on the imitation of Christ Herman Bavinck wrestles with a very old problem. He points out that the New Testament was written by and for Christians who came from the underside of society – the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. As a result, its emphasis falls on the virtues and practices that are appropriate for people in such circumstances, such as patience, forgiveness, and obedience. The question is, how are Christians to work out the imitation of Christ in contexts of power, authority, and influence? If the New Testament’s version of a Christian ethic is a classic example of an “ethics from below,” how are we to implement it when we need an “ethics from above”? Here Bavinck points to the fact that the New Testament itself contains the principles for such an ethic, and suggests that Christians must get to the hard work of using those principles to translate the way of Christ in to a way of life appropriate for our own circumstances.

I believe Bavinck is correct to the extent that the New Testament emphasizes an ethic that is easiest to apply in contexts where Christians are not in control. I also agree that Christians need to work to apply that ethic to contexts in which we have power and influence, while ensuring that we are following the New Testament’s basic principles.

I worry, however, that we are often all too willing to assume that the hard parts of the New Testament’s ethic – the parts about being willing to suffer, to share our possessions, and to serve – must necessarily be translated so as to be amenable to contexts in which we are comfortable resisting evil, growing our wealth, advancing our ambitions, and preserving our rights. I also think that Christians have consistently underestimated the moral and spiritual compromises entailed in using power just like the world does. There is much in the history of Christendom of which we should be critical. To give just one example, why were the early Reformed, including Calvin, so willing to defend the use of the sword to punish heretics? Did they not find it too easy to abandon the example of Jesus and the early church in favor of Israel, at least on this issue?

Read the rest of this article here, at Reformation 21. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Death and Resurrection with Christ

In Part 1 of this series I highlighted the prominent attention the New Testament gives to the call to Christians to imitate Christ. I introduced this theme as the first step in defending my thesis that the central paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics) in the New Testament is union with and conformity to Jesus Christ, in whom all of God’s purposes for creation are fulfilled. Here in Part 2 I want to argue that the imitation of Christ should be understood as the practical outworking of the Christian’s obligation to be conformed to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It is, of course, the Apostle Paul whose writings most clearly emphasize the decisive significance of the Christian’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection. What I want to emphasize here, following the Heidelberg Catechism, is that Paul consistently makes the believer’s union with Christ the paradigm for his instruction regarding the Christian life… The driving theme of his exhortation is not a return to the law; it is conformity to Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled.

To read the rest of this article, the second part of a paper I presented at Calvin Seminary this past spring as part of the interview process for the position in moral theology, continue here at Reformation 21.

What Would Jesus Do? The Imitation of Christ

One of the strengths of the Heidelberg Catechism is that its emphasis is Christocentric from start to finish. From its wildly popular first answer – “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” – to its sensible explanation of what it means to be a Christian – that “I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing” – to its pastoral teaching regarding “what is basic to our prayer – the childlike awe and trust that God through Christ has become our Father” – it maintains its powerful emphasis on the believer’s union with Jesus as the essence of the Gospel.

Nowhere is this emphasis on Christ more important or deserving of emulation than in the catechism’s explanation of why believers should do good and what it means when they do such good. Strikingly, it does not merely offer an abstract description of sanctification before turning to a systematic discussion of God’s law. On the contrary, the catechism establishes the believer’s conformity to Christ – which encompasses the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new – as the paradigm for the Christian life. To be sure, the Ten Commandments provide the outline for the catechism’s teaching regarding the substance of God’s moral law. But the Decalogue is carefully interpreted through the lens of the law’s fulfillment in Christ. This is appropriate because while the law reveals God’s character on tablets of stone, Jesus is the express image of the invisible God, “God with us,” in flesh and blood.

To read the rest of this article, the first part of a paper I presented at Calvin Seminary this past spring as part of the interview process for the position in moral theology, continue at Reformation 21.

Pope Francis Fails to Mention Jesus Before Congress

If the Apostle Paul or the Apostle Peter were given the opportunity to address a joint session of Congress, do you think they would mention the name of Jesus? Pope Francis allegedly occupies the place of St. Peter, the bishopric of Rome. Though often introduced as the “leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics,” his primary claim is to be the vicar of Jesus Christ. And yet the pope did not find it necessary to name the name of Jesus when he addressed Congress yesterday (transcript here; Nor did he mention Jesus’ name when speaking at the White House reception on Wednesday).

I am not the sort of person to be instinctively critical of Pope Francis, and I have praised his work before. Indeed, I largely agree with what he said in his speech about the importance of hospitality to the immigrant, care for the environment, justice for the poor, the protection of life, and the nurture of families. But I cannot get my mind around the fact that he mentioned all of this without saying why any of it matters. He did not even mention the name Jesus, or Christ, let alone say anything about Jesus’ death, resurrection, or future return.

Some of my Catholic friends are concerned about this too, and rightly so. Is Francis not as committed to the “new evangelization” as we had hoped?

Pope Francis has the attention of virtually the entire United States right now. The media is covering every word, every act, every moment of his visit. And what is the media talking about? Politics. Whether the pope’s comments benefit the right or the left, whether he’s helping Republicans or Democrats. No one, it would seem, cares much about the substance of the pope’s faith regarding Jesus. And why should they? The pope hasn’t mentioned Jesus, so Jesus must not be an important part of the pope’s message to America.

An atheist friend enthusiastically wrote on Facebook yesterday, “I am an atheist, and I love this Pope!” A writer for the Huffington Post happily declares that America has a “man crush” on Pope Francis. All people are speaking well of him.

There was a time when Jesus warned his disciples that such favorable reception on the part of “all men” is not a good sign (Luke 6:26). He warned them that the world would treat those who speak Jesus’ message as it treated Jesus himself (Matthew 5:11; 24:9). Prepared for this, the disciples insisted on doing everything that they did “in the name of Jesus,” using every opportunity, even when confronted by those in authority, to proclaim the good news of his death, resurrection, and future return. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).

The disciples’ opponents didn’t mind the good works, the acts of healing, the care for the poor. What bothered them was that the disciples were doing these things “in the name of Jesus.” As we read in Acts 4:18, the authorities permitted the disciples to carry out their ministry but “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” Peter’s response was that “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:20). When it became apparent that the disciples were more than willing to defy the authorities, they were arrested again. The council reminded them, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name” (5:28). What did Peter say? “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29).

This was precisely the point of conflict that cost the disciples their freedom and eventually their lives. Even when prohibited from speaking the name of Jesus on penalty of imprisonment, torture, and death, they insisted that this was fundamental to their basic witness.

Yet in the land that the Pope himself described as the home of the free and the brave, to enthusiastic applause, he cannot find it in himself to even mention Jesus’ name.

This was the first time a pope has ever addressed a joint session of Congress, and Francis is a very popular pope. He has the ear of the country.

He didn’t have to beat the heads of Congress with a jeremiad. He didn’t have to get theological or even evangelistic. He didn’t have to highlight any particular moral or political issue. He was more than justified in being, as Jesus put it, as crafty as a serpent and as innocent as a dove (Matthew 10:16).

But he could have, at the very least, reminded his audience that he speaks for Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, who came to dwell among us, died, and rose again, that human beings might have life in his name. He could have winsomely described that hope in just a few sentences, as we know he has done so eloquently before, before moving on to other matters appropriate for a joint session of Congress. No one would have questioned it. He is, after all, the pope, whose most basic claim is to be the vicar of Christ on earth.

Now the whole country is talking about the pope and the pope’s politics, but no one is talking about Jesus or the gospel. What a sad day. What a wasted opportunity.

Why is the Gospel ‘Good News’?

One of the reasons why many Christians are struggling to determine the appropriate response to America’s affirmation of homosexuality – and why some are even arguing that the church should embrace homosexual practice – is that they grasp that the Gospel is supposed to be good news. The Gospel is supposed to be liberating. The Gospel brings salvation, not judgment.

How can Christians, who are supposed to represent good news, be identified with a political and cultural position that is associated with animus and bigotry? What has gone wrong? Is the traditional Christian position on homosexuality misguided? Even if we assume that the world is wrong to denigrate this traditional position as one of animus or bigotry, surely no Christian can be comfortable with this state of affairs. No Christian can take lightly the fact that the Christian witness is being interpreted primarily as one of judgment.

I realize that some Christians think we solve this problem if we simply distinguish between politics and the church. Then we can oppose gay marriage at the political level while showing love and grace at the personal level. But what about our churches? Increasingly it is not just the mainline churches who want to welcome those practicing homosexuality to the Lord’s Table; prominent evangelicals are moving in this direction too. The reality is that the angst Christians have experienced dealing with homosexuality at the political level is nothing compared to the angst they ought to feel witnessing to the Gospel’s implications for sexuality at the personal level, and in the church.

At a time such as this we need to remind ourselves why our witness regarding homosexuality needs to be rooted in the Gospel, not just the law, and we need to wrestle more deeply with why the Gospel is ‘Good News.’ Too often Christians have assumed that by standing for what the law says about sexuality they are fulfilling their obligation to witness to Christ. They have imagined that opposing gay marriage in and of itself is standing for the Truth, capital T. And then they wonder why gays, lesbians, and various liberals do not see the graciousness of the Gospel.

Christian witness is not fundamentally about standing up for the law. Nonbelievers don’t need us for that. That is what the conscience is for. The law is written on human hearts (Romans 1-2).

What nonbelievers need Christians for is their witness to the Gospel. What men and women who practice homosexuality need to receive from Christians is a clear sense of how in the world the Gospel is Good News, not just for the righteous, but for gays and lesbians.

But how can a message that rejects a person’s very identity be received as Good News? This question lies at the heart of the anxiety many Christians feel about the church’s response to gays and lesbians.

What is the Gospel? Stated most simply, it is the good news that because he loves the world infinitely, God has sent his only Son to take the world’s sorrow upon himself, in order that the world might be saved from sin, oppression, and death. He accomplished this through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, reconciling all things to himself, such that all who call on the name of the Lord might be saved. Now Jesus has sent his Spirit to lead men, women, and children to faith in order that they might receive the forgiveness of their sins, empowerment for a life of love and justice, and the promise of life in the coming kingdom of God.

This is fundamentally a message of liberation. When Jesus first preached this Gospel of the Kingdom he proclaimed it in the form of blessings on those who found themselves on the underside of history. It is an approach that much of the contemporary church has long forgotten but that we would do well to recover. (We tell ourselves that the beatitudes of Matthew and Luke are purely ‘spiritual,’ which seems to mean that they don’t really mean what they say.)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…. (Matthew 5:3-6)

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:20-21)

Does the church preach this Gospel today? Is this the message for which we are known?

We live in a world in which the masses who do not believe the Gospel are desperately trying to make meaning for themselves. Women and men pour their energies into all manner of ambition, sensuality, self-righteousness, and idolatry (the buzz words are success, self-expression, affirmation, and fulfillment) because they think that they can find happiness in the pursuit of these things. As time hurtles by, reducing all of us to decay and death in a series of accidents without meaning, people existentially cling to their autonomy as the only means of attaining some small measure of happiness. The opportunities for pleasure and fulfillment seem endless, but the enterprise is ultimately futile, the sheer weight of expectations crushing our accomplishments, relationships, and manufactured identities.

This is a scenario ripe for good news.

True, there are some people who are so invested in this futility that they will consistently reject the Gospel. Their minds are too darkened by the present age to see good news when it is staring them in the face. But there are many others who grasp that their deepest desires cannot be fulfilled by this world, that it cannot liberate them from the powers and failures that oppress them.

What Christians need to communicate to these children of God, many of whom are gay and lesbian, is that the Gospel brings with it complete salvation: not just the forgiveness of sins, not just the end of homosexual practices, not just personal affirmation, but complete salvation, the fulfillment of every purpose and desire for which we were created in the God who is love. It clears away our inadequacy and guilt by paying the price of sin, it tears down our pride and self-righteousness by filling us with love for our neighbors, and it ends our need to manufacture and fulfill our own identity by identifying our purpose in faithful response to the love of God.

Yes, the way in this life will be hard. It will require tremendous self-denial on the part of gay and straight alike. In the short term we have nothing to offer but that a person deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Christ. But while this is a hard way, it is also a fulfilling way because it is the way of Truth. In the long run it is easy and light because it leads to Life. And in the end, that is what many people so desperately desire. That is why the Gospel is Good News. Let’s show it to them.

%d bloggers like this: