Perverting the Gospel
JUNE 15, 2022
I got an email from a friend this morning.
She wrote that her “deadly sins” were doing battle with each other. She struggles with gluttony and then when she gets the gluttony under control, she has to struggle with pride. As I read her email, I found myself laughing because I do the same thing. The battle between lust and self-righteousness, between acedia and envy, and between wrath and sloth, is ongoing. It’s hard to win without losing.
Just so you know, I welcomed my friend to the “club” and wrote, “I guess we’ll have to depend on the sufficient and finished work of Christ. He knows our struggle, still likes us, and still cuts us slack.”
No, that’s not antinomianism . . . it’s reality.
One of my struggles is anger. (In the list of the “seven big ones,” it’s called wrath.) Frankly, I’m a lot better than I used to be and I’m quite proud of it. Once I realize my pride and repent of it, then my mood gets morose and someone or something ticks me off. So the pride is better but I’m back to square one with anger.
I know. Jesus died for neurotics too. Sometimes it’s just hard to tell the difference between my neurosis and the Holy Spirit’s conviction . . . that is until I encounter the clear teaching of Scripture. That happened to me this morning as I realized that my anger is sometimes a godly anger; and if it’s not, my anger is shared with none other than the Apostle Paul.
Do you know what really ticked off Paul? He got angry when he saw people taking the good news of the Gospel and making it into bad news. That’s largely what his letter to the Galatians is all about. Paul wrote, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel . . . But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-8). Then Paul got quite earthy (Galatians 5:12), “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” Talk about anger.
Paul got it from Jesus and for the same reason. In Matthew 23—not a pleasant devotional chapter—Jesus addresses the super-religious and, among other things, gets to the bottom of his anger with, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matthew 23:13). Then to make sure they understand, Jesus says that the religious folks will do anything for a convert and when they get one they “make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”
I share my anger with Jesus and Paul. So there!
It really does make me angry when we so often take the good news and twist it into something that is more Old Testament law than New Testament grace. Bill Hendricks, in his very good book, Exit Interviews, is quite angry too. He writes that there is crisis in the church. “I believe that the church needs to decide how long it is going to coddle legalism in its ranks . . . people who preach grace but practice works. People who inflict guilt on others for being human, let alone sinful. People who say, ‘Well, we don’t want to go overboard on this grace thing because people will take advantage of it.’ The church has made it comfortable for those who hold that position. But at what cost! Legalism is keeping people out of the church, it is driving people away from the church, and it is poisoning the lives of those who remain in the church.”
How do people manage to take the message of the Gospel—the best news the world has ever heard—and pervert it so that it ceases to be the Gospel? I thought you would never ask.
We pervert the Gospel when we try to make the good news palatable to those uptight religious folks who think they’ve been called to be the “mother to the unwashed.” The message of the Gospel is counterintuitive on steroids. It causes trouble when its truth is spoken . . . because it runs so contrary to what people think. It cost Jesus a cross, Stephen a stoning, and Paul an execution . . . all “in the name of God.” Luther said, “We are great sinners and Jesus is a great Savior.” That’s it. Anything less (or more) isn’t the Gospel.
We also pervert the Gospel when we lace the radical freedom that Jesus gives to a list of requirements. You’ve heard me say before that the only people who get better are those who know that, if they don’t get better, Jesus will love them anyway. That’s true and the essence of the Christian faith. Paul’s confession in Romans 7 is followed by, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). That can be translated in the original Greek as, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Another way we kill off the Gospel is to add “kickers” that God refused to add. Every time I teach John 8 about the woman caught in adultery and the lack of condemnation by Jesus, someone will say to me (I’ve heard it a hundred times), “Yeah, that’s true but Jesus did say ‘Go and sin no more.’” Generally in response I then reference Luke 7 when the prostitute crashed the Pharisees’ dinner party. Her love for Jesus was incredible and Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:47-48).
Wait, Jesus should have said to her, “Now don’t do it anymore.” He didn’t, so that means Jesus didn’t approve of adultery but had no problem with prostitution, right? Of course not. That’s crazy.
Let me give you one more. We pervert the Gospel when we make having one’s underwear on too tight normative to what it means to be a Christian, when we equate being outraged and offended with faithfulness, and when we make laughter a sin.
I miss my friend Jim Kennedy, the late pastor and founder of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. When Jim died, he was remembered for his incredible contribution to the evangelistic task of the church, his faithfulness, and his insights in a great variety of areas. All of that is true, but the thing I remember the most was his laughter. I remember once when we were both in a hotel room somewhere at one in the morning and started telling funny stories. We sounded like two giggling little girls and it so disturbed the others on our floor that they called hotel management and complained.
There is something about being loved unconditionally, forgiven totally, and accepted without reservation by God that solicits laughter. If there’s no laughter then Jesus has probably left the building . . . because he didn’t see or hear the Gospel.
Aren’t you going to mention sin?
Okay (and frankly, it irritates me to have to do it). Sin is horrible, hated by God, and destructive to everything God loves (especially us). The main thing about the Gospel is the Gospel, but there is a side benefit. It’s called sanctification. Christians generally get better, love more, obey more often, serve more joyfully and follow Jesus more closely. In fact, the change is so subtle that those who are getting better don’t even know it. But that’s not the Gospel and about as exciting as a bag of chicken feed. Nobody gets excited about a moral improvement society.
Without the astonishment, it’s not the Gospel. There is something so amazing, weird, crazy, outrageous and . . . well, astonishing . . . about the Gospel that when we forget that, it’s no longer the Gospel. It’s just another religious movement to make us nice. And I might add, another religious movement that doesn’t work.
Yeah, I get angry when I see hungry people ask for bread but are given a stone instead. I know. Jesus not only died for neurotics, he died for Pharisees and scribes too. Besides I just realized how pharisaical I am about Pharisees. I repent.
But I’m still angry.
You should be too. He told me to tell you.
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