Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Message of the Gospel is Not "Behave!"

This is the major malfunction of American evangelicalism's political idolatry. To the extent we equate God's blessings and his kingdom coming to bear with the right men on Capitol Hill and the right laws in place, we settle for moralism and a righteousness born of self.

We'd all reject this theologically, I think, but it is implicitly central in a lot of the rhetoric and the exasperation from American Christians about what's wrong with America, etc etc.

As I was waiting for my ride to the airport from the hotel in Louisville, KY last week after the Together 4 the Gospel Conference, I was reminded of cultural Christianity's real concerns. The transportation attendant at the hotel noticed from my tag that I was from Vermont. Our conversation went like this:

Him: "You're from Vermont?"

Me: "Yup."

Him: "That's great. That van load that just left were from Vermont."

Me: "Oh cool."

Him: "Yeah. Good to know you guys are getting the good news out up there."

Me: "Well, we're trying."

Him: "Need to get some Republicans up there."

And there I was transported back to everything that drives me nuts about American evangelicalism: the equation of the good news with something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, in this case -- as is often the case -- with political conservatism.

I believe many Christians in America would be satisfied if "the culture" just stopped using pornography and drugs and alcohol and stopped aborting babies and started "acting right." As far as I can tell, that would be a Win.

But it's not a win. A land where everybody acts right and is on their best behavior, where peace reigns and social decay is no more and the poor are helped and the hungry are fed, but Christ is not worshiped as the sole supreme satisfaction in all the universe, is a big fat FAIL.

As C.S. Lewis says:
We must not suppose that if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world.

The message of the gospel is not "Behave!"

But that is the message American evangelicalism -- Southern and Northeastern, and most other places -- has been proclaiming. It is at its heart pharisaical.

We are called to preach not moralism but Christ crucified, foolishness to American culture and a stumbling block to American Christians.

Michael Horton illustrates this well in his book Christless Christianity:
What would things look like if Satan really took control of a city? Over half a century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio. Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia (the city where Barnhouse pastored), all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday . . . where Christ is not preached.

There is a great difference between “being good” and the gospel. Some call it moralism. Moralism, in fact, blinds us from the gospel by giving us something of “the real thing” ensuring that we miss out on the true gospel all together. We must remember that Christ came first not to make bad people good but to make dead people live. If we forget that, our Christianity will turn out to be Christless.


Gabe said...

Watched MARJOE this morning. This rings home for me from that too.

Jared said...

Gabe, what's MARJOE?

Terry said...

Jared, thank you, this is very close to my heart, I came out / am coming out of that world.

Andrew Terry said...

"We are called to preach not moralism but Christ crucified, foolishness to American culture and a stumbling block to American Christians."

Ha! Love it!

bill streger said...

Jared, Marjoe is a movie that follows a guy who was an evangelist in the 70s and a complete sham. He learned to work the system and made a ton of cash. Fascinating look at how much of a subculture we can tend to create:


Anonymous said...



Matt Taylor said...

Yet another sad evidence that we are far too easily pleased. We will settle for Christless conformity to Law instead of radical love of Jesus.

I think John Piper said once that to create a "perfect" world without Jesus is to give people a nicer way to go to hell. May we preach Christ until he returns. No matter how "good" it gets.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

If a Lutheran could offer an observation, it is precisely here that I believe the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is such a critical point to make.

If I could offer a quotation from one of the documents from our Lutheran Confessions, it might be of help. This is from the Epitome of the Formula of Concord.

1. We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be maintained in the Church with great diligence as an especially brilliant light, by which, according to the admonition of St. Paul, the Word of God is rightly divided.

3] 2. We believe, teach, and confess that the Law is properly a divine doctrine, which teaches what is right and pleasing to God, and reproves everything that is sin and contrary to God's will.

4] 3. For this reason, then, everything that reproves sin is, and belongs to, the preaching of the Law.

4. But the Gospel is properly such a doctrine as teaches what man who has not observed the Law, and therefore is condemned by it, is to believe, namely, that Christ has expiated and made satisfaction for all sins, and has obtained and acquired for him, without any merit of his [no merit of the sinner intervening], forgiveness of sins, righteousness that avails before God, and eternal life.

5. But since the term Gospel is not used in one and the same sense in the Holy Scriptures, on account of which this dissension originally arose, we believe, teach, and confess that if by the term Gospel is understood the entire doctrine of Christ which He proposed in His ministry, as also did His apostles (in which sense it is employed, Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21), it is correctly said and written that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and of the forgiveness of sins.

6. But if the Law and the Gospel, likewise also Moses himself [as] a teacher of the Law and Christ as a preacher of the Gospel are contrasted with one another, we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a preaching of repentance or reproof, but properly nothing else than a preaching of consolation, and a joyful message which does not reprove or terrify, but comforts consciences against the terrors of the Law, points alone to the merit of Christ, and raises them up again by the lovely preaching of the grace and favor of God, obtained through Christ's merit.

nhe said...

Jared - it would have been fun to have said to the guy - "well, I think like a democrat sometimes" - just to rock his world - then the "bigger" conversation really begins.......what DID you say btw?

Brian said...

I've said before that what Evangelicals want is a society of polite pagans. I mean, why proclaim the Gospel if everyone is already acting "good" to begin with?

Jared said...

nhe, I don't know if I said anything. I think I chuckled. I might have said something like, "Yeah, well..." and trailed off or something. I was literally on my way to the waiting vehicle -- he was carrying my suitcase -- at that point.

I really thought it was a weird and specific way to end my time in Louisville. Felt like God was laughing at me. :-)

kinleyw said...

A city where "all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished..." I've been in that city for almost 4 months now. In this city within an Islamic culture, these things are banished. Everyone "behaves". Everyone gives to the poor. Everyone is "nice". And yet there is no gospel, and most see no need of it.

Mike T. said...

Amen. This posting states very clearly what has been wrong with the Americanized version of the Gospel that is being proclaimed on Christian radio and by many Christians these days. Sharing the Gospel is not expressing a politcal view or a hope that the morality of the people of this country will improve. We need to boldly tell others about Jesus Christ crucified. Sure the conservative political agendas don't rear their head in the church but the moralism message is alive and well. Around my parts the message of the church is at best motivational or inspirational but rarely focused on Christ crucified or our need for a savior. When we speak of Christ let us speak of the gospel message. And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him"-- these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. "For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.
(1Co 2:1-16 ESV)

BJ Stockman said...

Thank you Jared.

You are a blogging delight. Not Turkish delight mind you, but Gospelish delight.

Yours is one of the few blogs, and I mean few, worth reading consistently.

BJ Stockman

nhe said...

That is funny Jared.......they followed you all the way to Post-Modernville......however, there still has to be more of them down here in the American flag shaped buckle of the you-know-what.....you still went to the right spot.

Pastor Randy said...

Good point/post Jared. It is often much easier to preach we must 'do' better rather than the truth that we are depraved and in need of a crucified Savior.

It was a joy to meet you last week in Louisville.

Justin said...


A gospel with anything other than repentance and acceptance of Christ crucified as its goal is no gospel at all.

jrsong40 said...

While I generally agree I at times wish you would get off your high horse and extend the same level of grace, mercy, and Christian charity that you are willing to give abortionist, adulterers, homosexual activist..etc...
While spreading the gospel is the most important command it is not the ONLY command. Maybe the command to "seek the good of the land" that God has placed them in is real to them. They oppose adultery not because they are afraid someone out there maybe is having a little too much fun but because of the damage it does to everyone concerned. They oppose homosexual marriage for the same reason. They are involved in politics not so they can live free but so their grandchildren can. They care for the sick and poor not only in the hope that those they care for might turn to Christ but because the poor and sick are made in the image of God and deserved to be care for whether or not they ever do come to Christ. They put on a military uniform so that you and your congregation can worship freely..not only you but your Muslim next door neighbor. A lot of people in your amen corner probably got more upset and angry over the result over the result of last night’s baseball game and will get upset over who gets kicks off Dancing with the Stars and American Idol(oh and I won’t even mention the coming NFL draft). BTW there is a such thing as watching too much tv. These same people will then with a certain self righteous scorn tell those who were upset and angry about the last election that they are not “trusting Jesus” or bring harm to the gospel because they may show a little passion in the causes they believe in. How about using your blog just once to thank the people who are standing in the gap for you instead of judging and belittling them. "Release the hounds or release the gospel"

Jared said...

jrsong, you seem a little worked up. I don't think reminding people that Jesus saves, not politics (or anything else), is getting on a high horse.

Do you think maybe your assumptions about my readership (getting upset about sports or TV) are a little high-horsish? Maybe?

I don't know why this post has made you angry, but I wish you peace.

jrsong40 said...

these people are not saying that "politics saves" but they are saying "hey if we have the votes lets end slavery etc...."

Satan is probably pretty pleased that lives are being ruined by by pornography and families shattered by adultery and divorce. He not only desires that our souls end up in hell but he is very interested in making our lives a living hell now.

There was so much more in my response that you could have responded to but instead you label me angry.This of course frees you to ignore the valid points I made.

I'm grateful for Christ who died for my sins and I am grateful for William Wilberforce who fought via politics to end the terrible practice of slavery.

What was it the Mr Newton said to him when he was thinking of forsaking a career in politics. What would you have said?

I wish you peace also

Jared said...

jrsong, if you are saying it's okay for Christians to engage politically so long as politics isn't seen as the means and the end, then you don't disagree with the post. So I have to wonder what you're upset about.

I didn't say anywhere don't vote.

I merely said that Christianity does not equate to Republicanism and that we should not settle for moral unbelief.

Unless you disagree with that, your reaction to my post is based on your misunderstanding or overreaction.

Spike said...

Excelent post Jared. Your amen corner understood what you were saying, too bad jrsong40 didn't. Your amen corner realizes we need a savior everyday and that being free from the law doesn't dismiss the law but rather gives us hope because He could keep it. Glad you enjoyed the conference.

Rob and Mary said...

Thanks for another great reminder of truth.
People forget that the root of real radical change is in the basic fundamentals of the gospel.
That, God sent His son for my sin to be justified, that I may receive propitiation, and be changed day by day.
Moralism is not the end. Relationship that is eternal with God is, and their is only one way for that to happen.


N. Bhatt said...

I totally agree with the article in that people wrongly equate Christianity with political conservatism/republicanism and leave out the gospel for moralism. However, I would also note that moralism in and of itself is not bad or something we should not strive for...I definitely think we should work to save unborn babies and reduce the way women are objectified, people are helped etc etc. without forgetting that the only true power to make that happen is the gospel and without it it'll be a shallow farce ready to fall.

Anonymous said...

Having recently read both Michael Horton's "Christless Christianity" and William Wilberforce's "A Practical View of Christianity", it would be difficult to think of any way in which Wilberforce would disagree with the assessment of religion and politics offered by Horton (or by this blog post).

Miscellannie said...

Amen, amen, amen.

JJones said...

Just a few quick thoughts:

I believe many Christians in America would be satisfied if "the culture" just stopped using pornography and drugs and alcohol and stopped aborting babies and started "acting right."

1. Your opinions are interesting and display a fair amount of thought.

2. I'm just curious: if you are so passionate about getting out to preach Christ (as you should be), why do you waist so much time spewing your beliefs about the problems of others onto the internet? Why don't you just go....preach?

3. You're really going to equate some taxi-van driver with mainline evangelicals? Do you know where he goes to church? If he goes to church? If he knows Jesus? Did you ask him, or did you simply pull out your cell or a piece of paper and make a note about your need to lambast the evangelical movement?

4. Have you ever stopped to consider how the evangelical movement got its name? I can tell you that it's not because they sit around and preach politics and morality.

5. Just another curiosity of mine: when was the last time you led someone to Jesus? I mean, you personally. Is it time you got off the computer and got onto the streets?

Just my initial reaction. I'm not trying to be a jerk. I promise. I'm just wondering, and I will check for a reply. I'd like to hear your response.

Jared said...

JJones, you may not be trying to be a jerk, but you know you failed. Aside from the fact that your comment is rude, combative, insulting, and presumptuous, it's also disingenuous. How? Because by getting on your computer and onto this blog to leave a long comment, you indict yourself of the same thing you're accusing me of: typing on a computer instead of "being in the streets."

Why are you commenting on this post instead of preaching to the lost, man?

But I'll answer your questions anyway:

if you are so passionate about getting out to preach Christ (as you should be), why do you waist [sic] so much time...? ...Why don't you just go....preach?

This is a logical fallacy. It assumes that if I blog, I don't preach. I could also assume that if you're commenting on my blog, you're not preaching. We might as well say one can't do anything but preach. Why eat lunch? Why take a nap? Why use the bathroom? Why take a walk in the woods?

This post has touched a nerve, and you have reacted by making a really weird assumption. Your disagreement with the post = that I blog too much, which = I don't preach the gospel.

Well, aside from being weird, it's wrong. I do preach the gospel. It is possible to both preach it and write about it.

You're really going to equate some taxi-van driver with mainline evangelicals?

I used him as an illustration here, and yes, I do think this sentiment is indicative of evangelicalism in America in general. I have lived in it for 34 years and ministered in it for 14. So I am not making up the inclination for evangelicals to equate political conservatism with Christianity. If you have never seen that, thank God for that.

did you simply pull out your cell or a piece of paper and make a note about your need to lambast the evangelical movement?

Nope. Didn't write it down. I just remembered it. :-)

I don't have a need to lambast evangelicals. I do have a need for critical thinking and cultural criticism, and I think evangelicals have a need to hear it.
I would assume you think otherwise, but then your comment proves you think lambasting is okay in some circumstances.

Have you ever stopped to consider how the evangelical movement got its name? I can tell you that it's not because they sit around and preach politics and morality.

Wow. Where to start?
Yes, I know what "evangel" means.
I guess I would just say that carrying a name does not equate to carrying a message. Which is, um, kinda the point of my criticism. We are people named for the gospel, yet we default to politics and moralism too often.

Just another curiosity of mine: when was the last time you led someone to Jesus? I mean, you personally.

This is not your "curiosity"? This is your trying to play "gotcha".
But the answer to your question is "last Friday."

Is it time you got off the computer and got onto the streets?

Please ask yourself the same question when you return to check for my response?

Again, this is a silly argument and is only indicative of your inability to say anything constructive with your negative reaction to the post.
Shouldn't you be on the streets instead of reading a book? Instead of commenting on this blog? You do love Jesus, don't you?

See? It's silly.

You assume I'm not "on the streets." This is a false assumption. You have not earned the right to know about my life with your presumptuous and unkindness so I won't bother to tell you how and where I minister.

Now. I gotta get off the computer and get my girls up for school. :-)

Rob and Mary said...

Wow, that really was a rude response.

Just one quick response to one of the questions. I thought the Holy Spirit is the one that leads people to faith in Christ? If I am used in some way in that process, great but it is not my doing or leading. It is God's entirely.
That kind of question is extremely presumptuous and self-centered.


turtlemonvh said...

I really enjoyed your comments, and what you wrote reads like common sense to me, which is always nice!

Still, I wonder if there is value in striving to change public morality through politics. If we can work to enact laws that protect and serve people, then this could be a form of service, which follows as a natural expression of the gospel in our lives.

For a long time I looked down on any Christian involvement in politics as an attempt to force Biblical morality on those to which it is perceived as foolishness. But perhaps there is more to the picture.

Surely, people will not be saved if the gospel is not preached, but I do believe there may be some eternal profit in acts of service since they mold our hearts and they may even be part of God's plan to redeem the world to Himself.

This is something I've been thinking about a lot since I first read this post, and I'd love to hear what you think!

Jared said...

Turtlemonvh, thanks for your questions.

I always find it interesting and notable that whenever I write something like this, it is read as if I am against politics or Christians engaging in them. The same question was asked of me in a podcast interview 2 weeks ago.

I believe we have a duty to bring Christ to bear in all that we do and that concern for our nation is good.

All I'm saying is that we should not settle for a morally upright but Christless populace, that a nation where everyone is nice but does not worship Jesus is not a "win," biblically speaking.

But, yes, I agree that Christians may and should serve the general good by striving for justice and just laws. It's one reason why the abortion issue is somewhat of a litmus test for my vote.

Anonymous said...

The abortion issue is the bottom line for me too.

Anonymous said...

"We must remember that Christ came first not to make bad people good but to make dead people live." Amen to that! Everyone around me these days think that they can 'get good' by quoting Thomas Jefferson.(like I'm impressed!?) Good post Jared.

Come To The Deep End said...

Jared, I agree with your basic premise. The proclamation of Christ and Him crucified and a call to repentance is fundamentally our desperate need as a nation. No disagreement on that point at all. Where I struggle is the either or proposition. Is it possible the angst in the country today is different than it was in the 80's? I believe it is. People of this country know that something is fundamentally broke. It is not a "behavioral" issue. It is much deeper than doing good or the "right" thing that is needed and people know it. There seems to be an acknowledgment no matter what your political persuasion that we have lost our guiding principles. I believe this unrest sets us up for a crossroads.

Historically, it has been the Reformers that have risen to the challenge throughout the 16th, 17th, 18th & 19th centuries. God used them to make significant contributions and influenced their civil governments that led to greater freedom to preach the Gospel. We enjoy these freedoms today because of their willingness to be used of God in the public square. These Reformers were driven by a heart for the Gospel. Today we are entering into an opportunity to influence and bring Christ and our guiding biblical principles to the public square for the greater good of all. We can sit on the sidelines of the public debate and mock the partisan and maybe misguided but active participant or we can lead as did many Reformed clergy in the 1st American Revolution. I believe God can and will raise up voices within the Reformed movement just has he has throughout previous periods of unrest. I believe you could be one of those voices. I commend to you a great book "The emergence of Liberty in the modern world, the influence of Calvin on five governments" by Douglas Kelly. May God show us mercy and grace and lead this nation to Himself.

Scott Roche said...

Well said sir, well said.

Unknown said...

This is an old post, but since you retweeted it, I'll leave a comment.

Most of the evangelical conservatives I've met have seen morality in politics as the goal, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I've thought about it this way:
Do I do chores around the house to conjure up love for my wife? Or do I do them because I love my wife?

Sure, the Gospel brings about a striving for morality, but practicing morality and Law doesn't lead to affection for Christ. If anything, it makes one hate him all the more.

Jared said...

Come to the Deep End, I lock in on your comment here:
These Reformers were driven by a heart for the Gospel. Today we are entering into an opportunity to influence and bring Christ and our guiding biblical principles to the public square for the greater good of all.

My heart is for the gospel as well. I am desirous to see our nation (and all the other nations) captured by it.

I could quibble with your use of the phrase "Christ and our guiding biblical principles" but I won't. Just suffice it to say that the Reformers would not have aligned themselves with heretics as a means of piggybacking in moral values to the public square. And they didn't. Likewise, I will stand with any Christian who wants to see revival in America -- which I believe begins in the churches, not in Washington -- for the cause of Christ. I would not stand with a Mormon or anyone else for this cause b/c they do not really share it. Glenn Beck's Jesus is not the biblical Jesus. But I fear his Jesus is the Jesus of many people who claim Christianity in America.

Come To The Deep End said...

Jared, I agree the proclamation of the Gospel is of the utmost importance and nothing should replace it in priority. Having said that, I don't believe, for the sake of the Gospel, we can sit by on the sidelines of political debate and mock the partisan as moral deist. If we as a nation are moral deist it is because our pulpits have failed us. It was for the sake of the Gospel that God motivated Calvin to write the "Institutes of the Christian Religion" to address the need for sound biblical guidance in civil affairs of his day. It was his heart for the Gospel and his desire for the freedom to proclaim the Gospel that compelled him to seek the scriptures and to engage in the public forum. His writings and the writings of other Reformers have influenced governments all over the world throughout modern history. It is the writings of Calvinist like Calvin, Knox, Winthrop, and Witherspoon that influenced our Constitution and secured the freedom's we enjoy today. Perhaps God will raise up more Reformed voices to engage in our day and lead and contribute as did the giant reformers of centuries past. I believe, as you do, that it must start with the Gospel as our foundation. May God show us grace and mercy and lead this nation to Himself. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. Please consider the book "The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments" by Douglas F. Kelly

Jared said...

Thomas, that is my experience as well. I think most evangelicals would be happy with a nation that is strong among other nations in stature and where there is noticeably less crime, less abortion, less pornography, etc.

Of course, we'd ALL be happy with that.

But the difference is that many Christians think the way to accomplish that fruit is "returning to the Constitution" or what have you. When, really, laws cannot bring life change. And Christians should not place as "the end" a morally safe world where Christ is not treasured. Or a nation where everyone behaves under constraint of law, not under reverence of Christ.

But the way we accomplish that -- if it's going to be accomplished -- is not rallies, pickets, and politics -- but Christians on mission to their neighbors and beyond, loving and serving and heralding the gospel of Jesus Christ (over and above both hedonism and moralism).

James said...

Jared, I stand with you on this.

Here is a key statement that you made:
"I will stand with any Christian who wants to see revival in America -- which I believe begins in the churches, not in Washington -- for the cause of Christ."

This is the bottom line. We all have areas that we are disobedient and need to be brought in line with Jesus. When we look to presidents, political parties, talk show hosts and movements for our hope and encouragement we dishonor God and his plan of redemption for the world. The local church believing and acting out the gospel in their communities will always be the biblical God-honoring way.

The question becomes do we want to bring revival and renewal in America God's way or our way? One of them will succeed and one will fail. We must be sure we are building the right kingdom, the one that will last.

Anonymous said...

This is great and well said. Thanks for your boldness.