The Politics of Faith

[disclaimer: When I say our theological circles, I mean primarily the three basketeers and our close associates. I do not mean that we are identical in our thinking, but we share a common heart that is working through some things. In that sense we are of one mind. While we do occasionally come to different conclusions, the differences do not amount to a thimbleful when compared to the vast universe of agreement. That said, I do not intend to speak for my blog mates or my dear friends who are quite capable of expressing their own thoughts…which I hope they do here.]

Politics, it has been said, is the art of deciding who gets what. In our theological circles there are several whats being contended for these days, and I would like to draw particular attention to one issue for the purpose of discussion: the gospel. It seems that the definition of the gospel is in a state of transition…or dispute…or something.

I grew up hearing that the gospel was that Jesus died for my sins, and if I believe that (whatever that means) I will go to heaven when I die. Later in life I was exposed to a more sophisticated development of the gospel which followed several formulations from the Four Spiritual Laws, to the Romans Road, to FAITH. People share the gospel. Preachers preach the gospel. We look for churches that are faithful to the gospel. But what does that mean?

What do we mean when we say the gospel? Are we talking about a formula or set of propositions that, once believed, assure us of eternal life? Or is the gospel something else? To hear N.T. Wright say it, the gospel is not a prescription of how to “get saved,” but is a grander statement. Wright’s summary statement of the gospel is that “Jesus is Lord.” More than a bumper-sticker slogan, Wright contends that this statement sums up who God is in Christ, and that this is the gospel. Now, Wright does not deny that there is more to the story (i.e., the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension and Authority of Christ), but the essential good news is that Jesus is Lord.

John Piper finds N.T. Wright’s views on justification to be dangerous, and has written a book to refute Wright’s views. Not content to let the gospel be merely a declaration of Christ’s lordship (though not opposed to it), Piper says that if the gospel doesn’t give someone an answer to the question What must I do to be saved? it is not gospel at all.

(Related is the question of justification. What does it mean? When does it happen? Is it actuated by faith, or is faith merely a declaration that justification has occurred?)

But the political question is this: Who gets to decide, and by what means are these terms defined? One thing I think we’ll all agree on is that much is at stake.

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32 responses to “The Politics of Faith

  1. I’ve found the best Gospel that was preached was by Jesus Himself; the sermon on the mount. He says that our faith will produce obedience and works.
    Why do we want to complicate that?

    God’s blessings to you!
    Tim

  2. When the apostles and the Lord Jesus himself used the word gospel they were using a word that was in the vocabulary of their hearers. The gospel was the good news that runners carried throughout the Greek city-states proclaiming that the Saviour-King had ascended to his throne.

    “The word gospel, after all, was an imperial-political word, meaning that the Saviour-King has ascended to his throne and he reigns.” – R. J. Rushdoony, The Roots of Reconstruction

  3. I hear you, but

    What do you make of…

    1 Cor. 15: 1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain.
    3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. 1 Cor 15: 1-11 ESV

    I see the truth of the gospel being Jesus died for our sins – that is what it says, but also that he is Lord of everything. If he is merely Lord of everything and did not die for me…that ain’t such good news for me (I am in big trouble). On the other hand, if he died for me, but isn’t Lord…I’m in big trouble because he isn’t in charge of everything.

  4. Douglas Wilson has wrapped up his chapter-by-chapter review of Piper’s book. In the main, he is more than fair to Piper. One may have expected Wilson, a Federal Vision guy, to be more favorable to Wright, but this is largely not the case.

    Also interesting is Trevin Wax’s review of the book. Wax, a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary student (one who would likely be a Piper fan) ended up more in Wright’s camp than Piper’s.

    It is all curious.

  5. Part of this matter of answering the question, “What is the gospel?” is the matter of framing the answer, or in other words, the presuppositions we bring to the discussion. It’s not enough (with respects, Dan) to simply quote a Bible verse and say that that settles it.

    Is the gospel primarily about something that goes on in my heart and that affects my personal, moral, spiritual state and whether I will go to heaven when I die? Or is the gospel the answer to a much larger question — the redemption of the cosmos, summing up all things in Christ the King and reasserting the rule of God in the world, centering on restoring the imago dei in man? One is a pietistic frame that tends to be subjectivist, interiorized, individualistic, and privatized, and the other is a theocratic frame that tends to view redemption as cosmic and about the enthroning of Christ over all things. The wonderful thing is that with a theocratic frame, you get all that pietism promises, and so much more.

    And as for the politics, my eschatology tells me that whoever’s got the answer right will end up on top. That’s who I think should decide.

  6. I do appreciate everyone’s kindness.

    The passage I mentioned earlier seems to be a clear presentation of what Paul was proclaiming (he called it the gospel). I think it is a simple answer to the question Rob raised – what is the gospel?

    I don’t think the gospel is primarily about individuals; I do think it is about “the redemption of the cosmos, summing up all things in Christ the King and reasserting the rule of God in the world, centering on restoring the imago dei in man.”

    However, a large part we play in this grand story is to tell people that Christ died for them – to be reconciled to God and such. It seems now that after NT Wright’s and other’s redefining even the word gospel (some would say – they finally figured out the meaning after 2000 years) that a few pastors are reluctant to say to a lost world – “Christ died for you.” I don’t think that is wise or faithful to the trust God has given us while we are here. I will use a Bible passage, not because I think it ends the discussion, but because it is truth and light in our discussion.

    2 Cor. 5:17-21 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

    1 Peter 3:18 ESV “18For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,…”

    Though the message is cosmic, it is personal also. I don’t think we should lose sight of that part of the gospel even as we are enlightened by N.T. Wright and others. If we agree on that, then we see eye to eye, if not, I agree to disagree in peace.

  7. By disposition, enculturation, and education, we are inclined to see things from one perspective or another. John Piper once said that Christians naturally fall into one of two categories; “God is love,” and “God is truth.” We will either be more concerned that everyone hears of the love of God, or that everyone knows the truth of God. Now, most of us would like to think of ourselves as balanced, but the fact of the matter is that we tend one way or another.

    I think the same may be true here. We are either inclined toward a theocentric view of redemption, reconciliation and restoration, or an anthropocentric view. A theocentric perspective of the gospel is going to see that God’s work is cosmic in scope (and, indeed, includes the redemption of man as a part of that cosmic renewal). An anthropocentric perspective tends, in my view, to limit these things to man, focusing perhaps too narrowly on what Jesus did for “me” virtually to the exclusion of what he has done to redeem all of creation.

    I don’t think that Wright has suddenly discovered the true meaning of the gospel, neither do I think he’s redefining the term. I think he may be refocusing our attention on the completeness of the gospel to correct a narrow understanding that leads us to other malformed conceptions biblical truth.

    I also don’t think that evangelicals are rejecting God’s redemption of the cosmos, but the emphasis on personal peity leads us in large measure to focus on ourselves as the center of God’s redemptive plan. While Jesus did come to earth as a man for the salvation of men (every bit TRUE!), he accomplished so much more than that.

    Which gospel is better: Jesus died for your sins? or Jesus died to restore all things…including you!?

  8. I agree with you Rob and I like the second choice there that you give. I think Piper would as well, he just does not want to omit the personal side of it. Who would have thought that at some point people would argue that Piper holds to a too man-centered gospel? Not me…not where I come from…I come from a whole other level of man-centered gospel preachers/teachers.

  9. Dan, It is interesting about Piper. While I agree that he would shudder at the idea of being “man-centered,” there does seem to be something anthropocentric about his position. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love John Piper. What I think is at work here, though, is that his pastoral concerns force him to care for people, their souls, their relationship with the Creator. These are good concerns, so I do not even come close to faulting him for them. Theologically speaking, however, I think the gospel must be understood in its broader meaning, and, as you mentioned before, this gives validity to the personal salvation of individual souls.

    This all may be splitting hairs, but I think they’re hairs that need some splitting.

  10. Dan, you are an incredibly gracious brother, and I appreciate your spirit.

    You know, another factor in this discussion is the matter of order and emphasis. I don’t know how many times I have taught on something and someone came up to me afterward and said something to the effect of, “Yes, but what about …?” My answer often is that I believe just as fervently about that thing as what I spoke about, but I only had 45 minutes and could only say one thing at a time.

    Now I think that the gospel IS about the salvation of individual sinners. The trouble is that evangelicals, for a long time now, have spoken as if that is what the gospel really (primarily? exclusively?) is about. Many evangelicals don’t have to explain this — their mode of communication (read: individualism and pietism) is screaming too loudly for me to hear their explanations. So I think part of what is happening in this conversation about the gospel is a refocusing on what was not lost on previous generations of faithful Christians — that the gospel is far larger than me and my problems and whether I am going to heaven. If we find Wright trying to communicate this, we may conclude, “Oh! Wright is denying the personal, individual, soulish aspects of the gospel!” But in fact he affirms those things and is trying to deliver a course correction for people who have truncated (but not lost) the gospel.

    In short, I want to have a heart like Dan’s (and Piper’s and so many others) that is passionate for sinners to hear the gospel of the love of Christ. I also am interested in how the gospel will change whole nations and civilizations over millennia and bring the kingdom and cause flowers to grow in the desert again. That involves education and public righteousness and ecology and the justice system and dinner tables and foreign policy and the arts and all the rest. The gospel is the good news that Christ is Lord — and He’s King not just over my heart but over the new world He made (2 Cor 5:17) when He rose from the dead, having spoiled the principalities and powers. Nations will bow before Him! That is good news.

  11. The question is, does the Church proclaim the “education and public righteousness and ecology and the justice system and dinner tables and foreign policy and the arts and all the rest.” Or does it proclaim Christ crucified and risen again? As most of you know I love me some world conquering Gospel, but I think we (the Church) miss the boat when go about proclaiming a gospel that pretties up the culture, while missing the hearts of the populace.

    NTW’s “soft socialism,” to quote Doug Wilson, seems to be the fruit of such thinking.

    al sends

  12. Gospel living, if that is the phrase, must be made up of Gospel telling. To go and take dominion of the art world for Jesus, without the content of the “message preached” is simply making the art world pretty or prettier.

    It seems to me that when the bible talks about “the Gospel” it most often refers to a content driven message and not a life style.

    I believe that gospel changes everything, but only in as much as individuals believe the message of the gospel and they are changed. Sometimes this idea that Jesus is Lord (which He is) focuses on the omelet, forgetting the eggs. No eggs, no omelet.

    al sends

  13. So, maybe we change the language to “gospel proclamation.” This has the message of the gospel being proclaimed with our mouths as well as with our actions. Jesus had a ton to say about how we should live, what the reality of the gospel of the kingdom of heaven translated to in our lives (individual and collective). The Sermon on the Mount is a good example.

  14. Okay, so I just got off the phone with Al. Two things. No. Three things.

    1. Al is a gracious and gentle man who is a brother and a friend.

    2. We talked through this business of the universal/individual significance of the gospel. We decided (actually he said and I agreed) that the gospel is worked out in the reverse order of creation. Creation founds its crescendo in man. Redemption begins with man and works outward to the rest of creation. This makes emphasis on personal apprehension of the gospel quite important. There is an outworking that extends to the whole of creation, but the pebble is dropped in human redemption (Jesus came as a man to men to redeem men) with the ripples extending eternally outward. There is a lot more to be said (and it probably will be), but that is the thumbnail of our discussion on the matter.

    3. This is comment number 666 (for those of us who have access to the stats counter). I was going to lie in wait for Al to post and then make some sort of “declaration of judgment” joke on his opinion (PURELY in jest, please know). But I have chosen to take that out of the equation as a sign of my appreciation and affection for my brother. Thanks, Al.

  15. Well said Rob and you can have the number of man any time. I call dibs on 777 though.

    We almost made it to 200 views yesterday as well. This here blogin’ is funner than a box of frogs.

    al sends

  16. Al wrote, “The question is, does the Church proclaim the “education and public righteousness and ecology and the justice system and dinner tables and foreign policy and the arts and all the rest.” Or does it proclaim Christ crucified and risen again?”

    Classic false dilemma, Al.

    And furthermore, it was never suggested that the church “proclaim” education, public righteousness et al. — rather, that these are part of what it looks like when the gospel transforms the world (read “disciple the nations”).

    Counseling the contemporary evangelical church to avoid slipping into a social gospel (Rauschenbusch style, classic liberalism) is kind of like warning New Mexico residents to stay away from the ocean. Or maybe it’s like asking Hillary to stop acting so feminine. Or like asking Bill to stop being such a prude. Or like asking Miss South Carolina to ease up on the late-night geography cram sessions. Or like asking W. to beware the beautiful articulation.

    Of course you’re right, though, to say that we must always be vigilant about guarding the trust and proclaiming the gospel with integrity.

    Nothin but love, dude.

  17. false dilemma? That’s crazy talk.

    Well, even though I quoted you I guess I am not saying that you say that education etc is proclaiming the Gospel. I just don’t want to divorce the gospel effects from the gospel itself. Sometimes NTW does that.

    I also do not think that the Gospel is nothing less (or more?) than Jesus is Lord. Just don’t.

    al sends

  18. What a glorious future is in store for the children of God. Yes, the gospel of the Lord Jesus will transform the world! Let us rejoice that there is a day coming, when “[T]he earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the the waters cover the sea.”

    And what about the great commission to disciple the nations? Let’s hear from another nutty post-mil, the Puritan Mathew Henry.
    In his commentary on Matthew, Henry writes, “What is the principle intention of this commission; to disciple all nations. … Admit them disciples; do your utmost to make the nations Christian nations; … go, and disciple them.”

  19. Who have you discipled in the last two years? ( I don’t mean this as a personal attack on anyone) I’m just wondering if those of us in this discussion have taken anyone from lost to discipled (or at least in the process of discipleship) in the last two to three years. How do you disciple the nations if you haven’t discipled your next door neighbor or your co-worker? I have a few people that I have been through this process with and it is tough, labor intensive work. How do we disciple the nations other than one soul at a time?

  20. Sorry, that last post by me sounds obnoxious now that I look at it.

    I am grappling with NT Wright’s view of the gospel. In his book, Evil and the Justice of God page 86, he said something like – Christ died for us, in the same sense that Custer died for the sins of the American westerners. My understanding of that would be that he thinks that Christ died for us not in a substitutionary atonement way, but because of our sin. So, NT Wright doesn’t just hold the Christus Victor theme, with the penal substitutionary theme as a part of that, instead it seems, he denies penal substitution in general. For that, I can see why Piper thinks that is dangerous, and I agree with Piper. However, when I’ve talked with Rob, we don’t disagree about the view of Christ’s death and all that it implies. We both see the Christus Victor theme as major and penal substitution as a portion of that. I would feel better about NT Wright if I knew that he was on that same page. I certainly respect his scholarship in other areas and am a mental dwarf compared to him. I’ll continue to search the scripture and learn with an open mind.

  21. Pingback: Wright Questions « After The Handbasket

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