In my last commentary I argued that the gospel in America, generally speaking, has suffered a serious reduction (i.e., knowing some facts about Jesus, making a personal decision for Christ based on these facts, and that this constitutes the full extent of the gospel message and mission). I also argued that such reductionism is not consistent with the Scriptures and that this reduction of the gospel has dramatically altered the modern Christian’s conception of his purpose and mission away from the biblical prescription.
In the wake of such an audacious charge, the admonition given in Jeremiah seems a fitting place to begin my defense of these claims:
Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16, ESV).
Like the Israelites to whom Jeremiah was speaking, we have drifted from the ancient paths, the paths prescribed by the law of God, the written word. Jeremiah saw the people wondering which way to go. They were confused by new religions in much the same way that we have become confused by the reduction of the gospel.
If, in fact, we have departed from the truth, then going back to the point of departure is the only reasonable course. As C. S. Lewis so aptly said, “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road” (Mere Christianity). This is, in my mind, a twofold process: 1) determine where we departed from the “right road” and
2) once there, search the Scriptures (the ancient paths) for guidance in locating the right road forward.
I think the point of departure in American evangelicalism can, generally speaking, be traced back to the nineteenth century, namely to the influence of Charles Finney. I have addressed this topic previously but in light of our survey it bears repeating; Charles Finney was an incredibly popular and charismatic figure who galvanized revivalism in the latter nineteenth century.
Revivalism is the idea that men can create conditions conducive to conversion and that upon the creation of such conditions (i.e., opportunity to accept Jesus), men must be brought to a point of decision and only this decision can save them. In other words, present people with enough facts and they can decide their eternal fate. Charles Finney was a popular proponent of this view and is still praised by many as a great evangelist. Finney, more so than any other figure, would establish the model for evangelicalism in the century to follow.
However, unbeknown to many, his approach was grounded in the heretical idea that people are not fallen and depraved. Finney rejected the fundamental Christian doctrine of original sin. (See Finney, Systematic Theology, 245, 249, 320.) This is nothing less than ancient Pelagianism, a heresy that was refuted in the fifth century. Finney further denied that the righteousness of Christ is the sole ground of our justification, teaching instead that sinners must reform their own hearts in order to be acceptable to God. He wrote, “Sinners are under the necessity of first changing their hearts, or their choice of an end…” (Systematic Theology, 249).
Finney would issue numerous theological assertions that departed from historic orthodoxy. However, due to his extraordinary success and popularity (although being popular doesn’t necessarily indicate holy affirmation), many came to view the gospel story in these reduced terms: present people with some facts about Jesus and give them a chance to “make a decision.” Making a decision became the singular goal of modern evangelism and this evangelical activity became the near exclusive mission of the church. Thus many today consider this conversion, and any activity that doesn’t invite a decision is regarded as something other than the gospel. This was the genesis of gospel reductionism (the by-product of decisional theology) that has come to dominate American evangelicalism.
You can see the narcissistic nature of this emphasis. There is absolutely no connection whatsoever to the kingdom of God. The gospel according to revivalism is all about you and its only real implication is eschatological: when you die you get to go to heaven. However, this begs the question: What does the faithful Christian do in the meantime? Answer: Repeat the process as many times as you can and manage your personal sin. The gospel becomes a sales pitch emphasizing only the personal benefits; the redemptive work of the kingdom is ignored. The result is irrelevance. As the late Dorothy Sayers observed, “How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?” (Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos [New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1949], 56).
Don’t misunderstand. My salvation is profoundly personal but it is not the exclusive goal of the gospel of the kingdom. It is so much bigger than that! I am not inviting Jesus into my life, he is inviting me into his: his present kingdom and his redemptive mission in this fallen world. C. S. Lewis said it well when he wrote, “Christianity is a fighting religion…. It thinks God made the world … But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again” (Mere Christianity). And this “putting them right again” is embedded in the good news of God’s in-breaking reign (i.e., Christ’s kingdom) into this fallen world, setting right what sin has set wrong. This gospel of the kingdom promises the redemption of God’s whole creation; the church is gathered and sent to actively participate in this redemptive work in multiple ways, including proclamation of the risen Christ, certainly, but also demonstration of kingdom life within the community of God’s people and service to the world.
Next week, I will take up the following step in our journey back to the right path. We will examine the Scriptures-the ancient paths-and see how Jesus and the apostles describe the gospel in relation to the kingdom, and from there recover the church’s purpose and mission in light of that revelation.