Thoughts About The “Gospel” We Teach

“The devil hath the power to assume a pleasing shape.” -William Shakespeare, Hamlet

As I have mused about this question that we are focusing on, I believe that it will aid the reader if they know what meaning I am assuming with certain terms, (really only one, the ‘Gospel’). After looking and reading some variety of sources and then checking all 99 references in the NASB 1995 (New Testament only), my definition of the gospel is this, Jesus. Now what I mean by this is, I believe, that the relational aspect of this message/truth is bound up essentially in the call to relate (if you will) directly with/to the Christ. How this takes place is as unique as each individual person.

In a recent review of a book by Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God, the author tells of reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity in high school. She said she really didn’t like it. “One of the reasons spiritual memoir has been popular throughout the last decade is that there are a lot of people who aren’t asking the Enlightenment questions that the more standard apologetics texts like Mere Christianity strive to answer. Having Lewis, however brilliantly, explain the logic and rationality of Christianity didn’t speak to me where I lived.” She continues to reflect “Christians have, for a very long time, lived very much as Enlightenment people. We talk about knowing God through our minds. In fact, I think Christian tradition offers something much richer than that.”

Since the claims of Jesus are startling, the focus of personalness /relationalness seems to be the stumbling block for most throughout the last 2000 years. Christianity is inherently communal/relational. The Body of Christ isn’t language that lends itself to individualism. We seem to want to contain this “Gospel” and domesticate it/him. This I believe is what drives the entire concept of religion, and essentially sets the Christian message starkly apart. Jesus came (into this world) to give life. This life is the core message of the “Gospel”, that Jesus is the guarantor of eternal life. In contrast to this, is the driving piece of all religion. That is, it strives to somehow escape this world by earning / figuring out / laboring , in order to get out of here (find eternal life) or descend into some form of escape/despair. Buried in the midst of this is the exclusive claim that causes so much difficulty when the “Gospel” is presented/broached. It is with this in mind that I would like to discuss the whole concept of tolerance as it relates to the promo.

Paired with Girl Meets God is another small book written by a friend of mine, Daniel Taylor, Is God Intolerant? Here, Taylor challenges us to think hard through this very contemporary issue. Tolerance is seen as one of the few universally commended values in our society. One of those values is the autonomy of the individual. My individual judgments and behaviors should not be suppressed in the name of something higher, because there is nothing higher. Being autonomous, my responsibility is to maximize my potential, without harming others. Furthermore, this all is in keeping with a third contemporary value—diversity. In a world where there are countless different cultures, all expressing different values, and attitudes and behaviors, it is not only necessary that we be tolerant, but it is morally incumbent upon us to celebrate those differences and all that diversity. To do any less is to be intolerant.

Context is everything when it comes to questions of tolerance and intolerance. And the single most important thing to understand about the context in which the current tolerance debate takes place, is the concept of relativism. Relativism is the view that all truth claims are rooted in opinion, not in fact or the nature of things. If I say, “This is true or this is wrong” I am stating a personal opinion. My opinion has been formed by my society and my personal experience. The result has authority for me, for the moment at least, but no necessary authority for anyone else. Relativism is related to but not the same as pluralism. Pluralism is based on the clearly observable fact that there are many different views and values and practices in this world. Pluralism is an observation, not an evaluation. Relativism absolutizes pluralism. It takes the fact of diversity of outlooks – pluralism—and draws the illegitimate and illogical conclusion that because there are many views, no one of them is better than any other. From the clear fact that we cannot agree on what is true, it wrongly deduces that there is therefore no truth—only opinions. Maybe best stated: “Everything is right somewhere and nothing is right everywhere.”

A handy working definition of tolerance is “putting up with the objectionable.” Central in that statement is the necessary fact of moral judgment. If by “tolerant”, someone means a healthy notion of tolerance as a willingness to get along , then I want to be tolerant, in fact, I want to affirm most of the diversity in the world, especially since I believe most of it was created by God. If by tolerant, however, one means unable or unwilling to make moral judgments or to believe in truth, then I must decline to be tolerant. This diseased understanding of tolerance is as dangerous as a diseased kind of intolerance, perhaps more so.

There are three relational applications of this, I believe.

First, the relationship between God and humanity, where God does not affirm us in our sin, nor is he indifferent to our sin. He loves us despite our sin.

Second, there is the relationship between believers. The goal of this relationship is captured in the word shalom. It is a word whose concept is nothing less than God’s vision for his entire creation, especially as it manifests itself in human well-being: individual, interpersonal, and social. Shalom appears more than 250 times in the Old Testament and many more times in its Greek counterpart in the New Testament. A shortened definition is peace that comes from everything being right in the world, each thing and person in its proper place doing that which it was created to do. (Of course, if you do not believe there is such a thing as “proper” or “created” then you will not believe in or seek shalom.) Understanding shalom provides a paradigm for understanding how Christians should conduct themselves regarding present-day calls for tolerance.

The third relationship is between believers and the larger world. Tolerance in the New Testament is more often a question of Christians needing to get along with each other, than it is a question of how believers relate to a pagan culture. God’s love is the starting point. It’s the master theme of creation and no amount of sin and brokenness can erase it. There is nothing weak about God’s love and nothing harsh about his justice.

The bible establishes love, not tolerance as the standard by which we relate to all people–both within and without the community of believers. See Romans 5:8. An intolerant God would destroy us in our sin. A tolerant God would merely put up with our sin. A loving God dies for our sin.

There are many telling biblical story examples of how this might work in our everyday lives. Zacchaeus, in Luke 19:1-9, or being a neighbor in Luke 10:30-37.

As so often in the bible, we are called on to hold two different but complementary ideas in tension together. This is but one example. The dual commands, you must love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. Too often these commands are separated and distorted. “Love the lord your God” is used as a rationale for condemning people for their sinfulness, and “love your neighbor” is distorted into a call for accepting sinful behavior. In one case, love is used as an excuse for condemning, in the other as an excuse for enabling. It is instructive that we find ourselves turning to stories to understand what the bible has to say about love and tolerance and righteousness. Stories move us away from theory to the everyday world in which we must live. So look at John 8, where we see one of the most enlightening stories about God’s attitude toward tolerance. In short Jesus does not dismiss her sin, nor does he dismiss her!

“Speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) Here is where we find the first casualty of relativistic tolerance is truth. The first casualty of legalistic morality is love. The one who can hold onto both at the same time is a true follower of Jesus, truly in relationship.

What we know for certain is that we must be loving (read relationship), and that is a far greater challenge than being tolerant, with far greater dangers and rewards. Our calling is not to be popular but to be witnesses to the truth to a society that profoundly doubts there is any such thing and is disgusted by anyone suggesting he or she knows what the truth might be.

We must avoid the twin errors of arrogant, authoritarian condemnation on the one hand, and relativistic moral paralysis on the other. Between these lies a third way: loving faithfulness. We are called to live the Gospel as well as to proclaim it, Jesus has provided us the model and the possibility of relationship: Neither do I condemn you – Go and sin no more.

By His Grace, Hud.