What's Tony Thinking

Is It the True Gospel?

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Embedded here is the link to the audio/ video of the 3rd session of “What’s Theology Got To Do With It?” We focus on the chapters on Scripture and the Trinity.

I introduce the chapter on the Trinity, which I call “Keeping Your Balance,” with four questions which theology and theologians ask in service to the church and to the ministry/ proclamation of congregations.

  • Is it the true gospel?
  • Is it the whole gospel?
  • Is it the gospel for today?
  • What difference does it make?

These are not questions that are asked all that much today, especially the first two. Our questions tend to be more self-referential. Does the message I hear help me? Does it work for me? Do I like it?

While these more self-referential questions are understandable, they may not be the right questions or even particularly helpful ones. There’s a little of the customer is king here. Jesus, not the customer, is our king. And a strange king he is!

In addition, those of a liberal bent tend to be wary of questions of categories like true and false. We defer to “what is true for me” or “true for you.” Which leaves a vacuum when it comes to truth, a vacuum that those of a more authoritarian bent are only too happy to fill.

Today’s most prevalent false gospel tends to be the one we have mentioned on several occasions in these webinar sessions, Pelagianism. So named for the British monk, Pelagius, who argued that human beings attain salvation by their own good works and the application of their will. Augustine called that “cruel optimism.”

Pelagian assumptions then lead to questions like, “How can you say that a really good person of another faith won’t get into heaven?” “You’re telling me Gandhi won’t go to heaven?” Notice that such questions assume that one’s eternal destiny is based on how good or bad you are in your mortal life.

Popular, but not the gospel. The true gospel is the gospel of grace — God’s one-way love. We are saved — in this life or for a life to come — by God’s mercy and God’s grace poured out in Jesus Christ for sinners and to break the powers of Sin and Evil.

If you’re up for a fuller exploration of this, in relation to Ben Franklin and his virtues project, check out this beautiful article from Mockingbird.

The church is thus not “the good people,” but in Francis Spufford’s line, “the international league of the guilty.” We gather as those who know our need of grace and forgiveness. We gather like those in recovery movements who know we are people who have hurt ourselves and others, but that this is not the last word. As I quoted from a hymn a couple weeks ago,

“Ever since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die
And shall be till I die
And shall be till I die
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die
Wash all my sins away
Wash all my sins away
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die”
Such a gospel is offensive to those who believe themselves to be the good people, who are without sin and are the righteous. Oh, we may have a blemish or two, but nothing serious. Nothing like those other, really awful people, the _____  (fill in the blank).
Note that the false gospel of works and self-salvation immediately divides the world into the good people and the bad people. Which is sort at the base of, well, almost everything these days: Blue and Red, Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative, enlightened/ deplorable, etc. so on and so forth.
The gospel of grace, on the other hand, helps us to see that every last one of us, as Paul puts it in Romans, falls short of the glory of God, that we all stand in need of mercy. We all need a Savior. Good news: we have one! Again, an embarrassing and an offensive claim to those who are pretty much sure they’ve “got this.”
To me it isn’t good news to tell people all the stuff they must do in order to be acceptable to God. It is good news to hear that our sins have been washed away, that we are forgiven and can live as forgiven people, who seek to be gracious to others as God has been gracious to us.
In this third session, the emphasis is more on the second of the four questions, it is the whole gospel? I examine various “unitarianisms,” the raising of a partial truth to the status of the whole truth. As I’ve said before that is the nature of a heresy. There’s some truth there. It becomes a heresy when we say it is the whole truth, the final truth and the only and complete answer.
I’ll send along the video of this week’s (May 15) session when I get it. We focused on God as Creator and Human Sin this past Monday, again looks at how they have practical meaning in the life of a healthy congregation.
Next week two really key chapters, the one on Jesus and the one on the Holy Spirit, pages 113 to 156, if you’re keeping up with the reading. ¬†
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