Grace Emerges

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Forward Progress 1: Joy, Peace and Freedom

Forward Progress: 
Lessons and Trends in Progressive Christian Faith
by Brad Duncan

A 6-part series on the church, faith and theology,
and how they can move forward into the next generation. 

Joy, Peace and Freedom

There's something wrong with our gospel when it doesn't mean good news.
What does the Bible say about the spiritual side of the quality of life?  Jesus came to bring good news, which we call the gospel.  This good news brings life, and brings quality to your life.  It brings good things like truth, wisdom, joy, peace, freedom, and purpose.  It brings strength, it brings guidance, it brings security.  The Bible is clear on all of these things, and we are encouraged when we read these promises.

How did these good things come to us?  Let's be clear about this, let's ask the hard question.  Are we special?  Did God choose to treat some of us special, while discarding or neglecting others?  Is the good news for us bad news for someone else?  I'm not trying to provide a pat answer here, but to point out that the "good news" may not be well understood using traditional faith.  It may not be good news at all for people not on the receiving end.  Furthermore, what if we are the person that misses out?  What if we mess up or get it wrong, then the blessing for someone else is a curse for us.

Does God play favorites?  As humans, we certainly have problems with favoritism.  There are many different ways to say favoritism, such as elitism, sexism, racism, and nationalism, for starters.    How about: prejudice and judgment.  If we construe the gospel, the good news, to endorse favoritism then we have a problem with our gospel.  Consider James Chapter 2 (see article on Faith vs. Works), which describes the problem of favoritism.  James describes how the church people were reacting when well-to-do people came into their services, vs. how they treated poor people.  If we ever say that our church or denomination or religious practices gives us special status with God, we are also playing favorites!  There are entire nations who believe that their version of Christianity (I won't name names here) means that only their citizens can go to heaven!  What about the rest of the world?  Do people need to immigrate to that country in order to be saved?  The issue is not isolated -- every single church culture that I have come into contact with (in my limited experience) has the same issue.  People that believe a certain way, or belong to a certain sub-class of humanity, are saved.  Others are not, in fact they are excluded even if they don't want to be and they are trying really hard to please God.  Again, I'm not providing a pat answer here, but can there be a broader understanding of good news?  What if the tables are turned and we are the ones missing out?

Here's another way to ask the question.  What happened when I became a believer in Jesus?  Did I go from garbage status to favorite status?  Did God hate me before, and love me now? Does God love me, but only conditionally, only when I join the right group?  Only when I profess the right ideals?  Does God have a toxic personality?  Does he love people only conditionally, making them fear his every word and their every action?  Do you have to live to please God, only to find out when you die if you did it right?  Some will say that because God is righteous, he must have this kind of love/hate opinion of us because we are sinful and broken before we are saved.  Then after we are saved we are acceptable to be around.  Or is it possible that the righteousness of God can rise above human nature, regardless of our actions?

Does my gospel, my good news, lead to Joy, Peace and Freedom?  Does it lead to the good life?  Does it lead to a positive, nurturing relationship with God?  Does it lead me, like in the illustration of Jesus in Luke Chapter 6 (see Revolutionary Adventures, Chapter 6 Part 2), to build my house on a firm foundation based on the teachings of Christ, a foundation that stands strong when then storms of life come?  Does the gospel help me withstand sin and temptation?  Or does it condemn me as a failure?  Does it help me stand strong through this headlong rush through life, with all its challenges? (See related article here, here, here)

Final question: Does my gospel lead me to love my enemies?  (see the above link about Luke Chapter 6). Does it teach us that God loves his enemies?  Does it teach me to identify with the person who is different than me, maybe is even opposed to me, and to offer them warmth and compassion?  Doesn't God treat humanity in the same way, casting his compassion on the good and evil alike?  Certainly God loves those that oppose him!  Otherwise none of us would ever stand a chance, because we all oppose God in one way or another.

Without giving an easy answer, my answer to these questions is that our understanding of the gospel should lead to Joy, Peace and Freedom, and that some parts of the traditional gospel, expressed through Articles of Faith, and Creeds, of various church groups, have a fair amount of bad news mixed in.  In the sections below, I will try to point out the flaws in this understanding of the gospel, and describe what we can do about it.

Pointing Out the Flaws
For various reasons, the modern interpretation of the good news brought by the Messiah has grown through the ages into a mixed message in which both judgment and grace are essential elements in opposition to each other.  I am not a historian, but the story of Martin Luther is that he brought the concept of grace to the forefront and started the Reformation movement.  From that time, grace was considered to triumph over legalism.  However it did not completely vanquish it.  To sum up the logic, the reason why is that God can not tolerate man's nature.  He loves the sinner but not the sin, so he can't accept us or be around us.  Unless of course, grace covers our sin, changing our status with God.  I don't think Martin Luther realized it, but this is an incomplete grace.  Yes, without God we are sinful and not worthy.  We are not God -- we are only human.  But what happens if God's grace actually rules all?  What if Jesus is the ultimate authority on all things, including who can be accepted by God?  If this is the case, can we unveil a more complete grace?  A grace that when you unpack it simply means:
GRACE = Unconditional love from God, that brings undeserved gifts to mankind
I am not negating either God's righteousness or man's sinfulness.  I am claiming that the message of Jesus was good news.  Period.  He came to lay claim to man's sinfulness, making it right with God, providing the Holy Spirit, and creating the kingdom in which God's will is done both in heaven and on Earth.  

Jesus claimed that authority, and claimed that his authority was declared in the Old Testament prophets.  In particular he claimed that he had arrived to rescue the captives (Luke 4:18).  Jesus did not teach a mixed-message of rescue "but only if" the captives would act a certain way, believe certain things, or be first made right with God.  

Further, Jesus taught over and over as a major theme of his ministry that God was NOT impressed by any form of human worship, sacrifice, attempts to be made right, systems of laws, social structures based on spiritual elitism, temples, societies, ethnicity, creeds, status, or knowledge of the word of God!  Jesus opposed man-made systems that labeled some people as better than others before God.  Jesus claimed that he alone was the path, the way, the truth and the life.  Then he claimed that according to his authority his plan was that poor people would receive good news, prisoners would be liberated, the blind would see, and the oppressed would be liberated.  Tax collectors would become disciples, while law-keepers would not.  

One passage that people use to support the theory of a Jesus that will destroy people that fail to please God is the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46.  Using this passage and others like it, especially in the book of Romans, the theory goes that Jesus will reveal at the end of time who is a "sheep" and who is a "goat".  But take a more careful look at this passage (I break it down in this article).  You will notice that besides the sheep (who are praised for their compassion) and the goats (who are chastised for thinking they are good enough but actually don't understand God's compassion at all), there are also a bunch of poor, sick, naked, hungry people in the story.  These needy people are the ones that are receiving compassion from the sheep.  Jesus is saying that the gospel is about compassion, not legalism.  The needy people are the ones getting saved!  The people that believe in something other than God's compassion, are not believing in the true God.  In fact they are completely opposed to God and won't see his kingdom even though it's right in front of them.  An interpretation of the words of Jesus that looks at what he was trying to accomplish when he said them, rather than a timeless transplant of the words into absolute laws and principles, leads to a more correct understanding: Jesus is the authority on who gets saved, and he values compassion above legalism.

Do we carry good news for the needy?  Or do we burden them with requirements in order to actually receive God's love?

Secondly, because we carry a traditional theology that God loves people conditionally, we continue to treat people with favoritism!  We use our conditions on acceptance to determine who is a sheep and who is a goat, and we treat the sheep better.  We are good at identifying sinners.  Under certain conditions we will even exclude and reject people because of their sinfulness.  We think we are better, I suppose.  But what does God think?  He thinks we are all the needy, and all need his compassion.  

What We Can Learn
In Figure 1 (see below) I compare two opposing definitions of the gospel.  One is the traditional view of the restoration movement and of evangelical churches today, in which the theology of judgment is retained even in the presence of grace.  I call it "Judgmental Grace".  It means that as humans we have low status and are unworthy.  If we sin or choose badly, we will deserve punishment.  If we make a better choice (become a believer) then we will deserve a rich reward.  We continue to live with this juxtaposition of good news and bad news our entire lives, waiting to see if we did it right when we die and go to heaven, and meanwhile sharing this mixed-message with other people.  As a result we act out judgmental grace on others in our family, other believers, and non-believers.  We organize mission trips to share this mixed message and save people from themselves by pointing out how bad they are so they can avoid God's wrath.  The church is organized as a system of control to teach people how to act appropriately.  And the "Good Life" which is the rich reward for believers is focused more on life in heaven after death.  Certainly we teach joy and peace in this life as well, but alongside the positive message we also propagate continued judgment.  The fear of judgment works to reduce the very joy and peace that we seek.

The opposing view of the gospel is one based on the authority of Christ as the Messiah to rescue humanity. The fear of continued judgment is abandoned.  It leaves a life filled with good things as promised throughout the Bible.  Some of these good things are shown in Figure 2.

The Church in Transition

In Figure 3 at the bottom of this post I am taking a risk and providing an outline of the complete Articles of Faith of a typical non-denominational but non-fundamentalist evangelical church.  I think this outline does a great job of showing the faith and theology of the traditional gospel.  Many of the outline points, at least half, require a view that good news and bad news are juxtaposed to create a kind of balanced gospel that implies conditional love on God's part.

As long as judgment is considered fundamental to the gospel message, Christians will continue to be judgmental, and the good news of God's grace will bring a mixture of hope and fear to those that hear it.  What is needed is to rethink and rebuild.  The world needs God's love -- can we bring it to them?  To do so, we must give up our Either/Or thinking where we are either sheep or we are goats.  Instead we must look at the poor and needy and reach out to save them, extending the work and kingdom of the Messiah.
  • In recognizing that we are also the poor and needy that Jesus came to save we will cover ourselves with God's grace as well, and begin to live with true joy and peace.  
  • In recognizing that other believers are also the poor and needy we will lavish them with acceptance and tolerance.  
  • In recognizing that non-believers are also the poor and needy we will actively and passionately welcome them and carry the good news to them.  
And what about those that oppose us, those that oppose God, and those that mistreat us?  Are THOSE people the goats?  Can we look down at them at least and point our fingers that they will be condemned?  No, God loves even his enemies and taught us to do the same.  God's method of fighting injustice is peaceful resistance!  Peaceful, meaning carried out with love for enemies, never adopting hate and using evil against evil.  But resistance none-the-less!  Fight injustice, fight exploitation, fight systems of intolerance, fight systematic discrimination, fight self-righteous self-perpetuating religion, but do it peacefully, standing up for what we believe and rescuing the downtrodden in any way possible.

Realistically, what does the church need to do?  Reconsider a gospel that doesn't mix judgment and grace.  Then change everything!   (See related articles herehereherehere), 

Forward Progress: "I am the way, the truth and the life.  Come to the Father through me!  Find the good life at home in my kingdom, where God's will is done, where your needs matter, and where forgiveness reigns." -- Jesus


Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N. T. Wright (Oct 25, 2011)

A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-filled, Open-armed, Alive-and-well Faith for the Left Out, Left Behind, and Let Down in us All by Doug Pagitt (Apr 20, 2009)

Emergent Manifesto of Hope, An (mersion: Emergent Village resources for communities of faith) by Doug Pagitt and Dwight J. Friesen (Jul 1, 2008)

A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith by Brian D. McLaren (Feb 1, 2011)

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell (Mar 15, 2011)

Other Articles in This Series:

Figure 1.  The gospel should be based on the authority of Christ rather than a mix of grace and judgment.

Figure 2.  The gospel based on the authority of Christ brings Joy, Peace, Freedom and a life that is spiritually rich and abundant

Figure 3.  Articles of Faith outline adapted from a non-denominational, non-fundamentalist, evangelical church.

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