Last night on the way home from small group I listened to the guy on the local Christian radio station give a ten-minute presentation of what he learned in church the previous day. It boiled down to an appeal to make Jesus our "role model." (Yes, using those words.)
There is no better role model than Jesus. You won't find me arguing against that to anyone. And wanting Jesus for his benefits but not for his cross is a serious problem in Christianity.
But there was zero gospel content in this presentation. It could've been delivered by the Dalai Lama. Richard Gere thinks Jesus is an awesome role model. The world thinks Jesus is a good role model, and in fact, most of them wish Christians acted more like Jesus (or at least, more like their perception of Jesus).
"Jesus as role model" is not the gospel. At one point in his spiel, the radio dude hat-tipped self-help books and advice columns, saying "We read all those things, but we never think to go to the Bible for God's advice!"
As if the alternative to advice from the world is more advice, albeit from the Bible.
The gospel is not advice.
This is yet another example of something I've been harping on in my last two years of writing: just because you dress casual, play rock music, and talk a lot about grace, doesn't mean you aren't a legalist. And in fact, the self-professed "culturally relevant" churches today are the chief proponents of legalism in Christianity. They don't think they are, because they equate legalism with fundamentalism, with rigidity and dourness, with suits and ties and organ-led hymns. They equate legalism with "don't"s.
"Do" isn't any less legalistic than "don't."
"Do"s and "don't"s are just flip-sides of the same coin. The gospel isn't "do" any more than it is "don't"; both are merely religion.
And a Church that is mobilized with a gospel of "do good" might make for good p.r. for our churches, but the gospel of "do good" cannot really scandalize a lost and broken world, because most people know how to do good without the help of Christianity. They don't need the Church to be "good people."
And so the hip church believes it is railing against legalism and oferring grace because it creates culturally relevant, casual, innovative environments, because it makes the message of the Bible one of practical stuff to do, because it is cheerful, because it takes WWJD? seriously, and all the while they still don't know the power of the gospel of Christ's finished work, sufficient for salvation and fit for proclamation.
Instead we get the gospel of busywork.
Should we do good? Absolutely! Hearers of the word who don't "do" are only fooling themselves and have not the Spirit within them.
But if the gist and bulk of our proclamation is "do," we aren't preaching the gospel, which Scripture also calls us to do.
Remember that the Pharisees were the religious leaders who missed the gospel because of their focus on do's and don'ts. Pharisaical legalism was just self-help without good p.r.
This is why today's Pharisees aren't the concerned folks in the pews worried about their discipleship (as they are so often accused), but rather the preacher on the stage whose message is always helpful tips on how to get better at being a Christian.
We are eager to hand over our sin to God; we are ever reluctant to put our righteousness on the altar.
Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things works.
-– Robert Farrar Capon
Oh, for a recovery of the glory of the gospel!
The Weird Modern Desire for Legalism (and How Some People Don't Even Know they Have It)