where did the gospel go?

St. Peter's, Partick

 

A quick glance at church websites in my area that preach topical sermon series yields a breadth of fascinating topics:

  • life lessons from Jonah
  • evangelism
  • character study of Obadiah
  • lessons on love from Ruth
  • the power we get through conversion
  • studies on family
  • God’s teaching on sex
  • lessons on confidence from 2 Corinthians
  • and so on…

As interesting as these topics are, the Gospel is nowhere to be found in any of them.

It sounds harsh to suggest that among Evangelical churches, supposedly known for their voracious adherence to the ‘good news,’ but there is nothing here but Law. Whoa, wait, hold it!  Law…Gospel…what in the world am I talking about? In a nutshell, I mean simply this:

All Scripture is either Law or Gospel. That is, either a it is God’s Law speaking to us, telling us what to do and what not to do, or it is God’s Gospel telling us what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.

The Law may be characterized as ALWAYS telling its listeners what TO DO and what NOT TO DO. The Gospel may be characterized as always telling its listeners WHAT GOD HAS DONE for them in Christ Jesus. (from Lutheran Wiktionary)

Does my accusation make sense now? These sermons, as well-intended as they all are, consist of little more than lists of do’s and don’ts. Implicit in this sort of American Evangelical preaching is the notion that if we can only live up to God’s expectations for us, he will bless us. If we don’t, he will curse us. This is not biblical Christianity, it is moralism.

More importantly, it is not the Gospel.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for the Law in the life of every believer. It is essential for us to hear the Law and to remind us of God’s moral, ethical, and behavioral expectations. Arrogant, self-confident believers especially need to hear the Law and be reminded of our absolute dependence upon Christ. But–and this is a big but, I cannot lie–if this is the only preaching believers hear, they are missing out of the essence of the Gospel, Christ’s work for us. Unfortunately, based on the lists of sermon series at the church websites I visited, these folks are getting all Law and no Gospel.

Here’s the real problem.  Those whose lives are filled with pain, marked by uncertainty, overwhelmed by guilt, or crushed by their own sinfulness need desperately to hear the Gospel.  They need to be reminded of about Immanuel–that God is with us.  They need to hear the ‘good news’ that God in Christ has done absolutely everything to secure our salvation.  They need to know that God is for us.  The last thing they need to hear is demand after demand after demand.  The need to experience and rest in the unconditional love of God in Christ Jesus.

Fellow pastors, you must preach the Law…but you must also continually nourish God’s flock entrusted to your care with the Gospel.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Charles Clegg via Compfight

consumed with legality while ignoring morality

Law Books

We live in a society where questions of legality abound and questions of morality are all but ignored.  When deciding a course of action, we have little hesitation about asking “Is it legal?” but typically fail to ask “Is it right?”  A recent example comes from the leaked DOJ memo containing legal rationale for the killing of American citizens who have joined Al-Qaida or an ill-defined “associated force.”  The memo outlines why, in the opinion of the DOJ and current administration, such activities are considered legal.  Following its release and subsequent public outcry, Sen Lindsey Graham (at the opposite end of the political spectrum) supported the President’s position and issued a statement saying, “The process of being targeted I think is legal.”

One of the many issues in this scenario is the question of legality vs. morality.  Lawmakers (like Obama [as Senator] and Graham) make laws.  Lawyers (like Obama and Graham) practice law.  In theory, I’m certain that most lawyers, judges, and lawmakers genuinely desire moral laws…but there is absolutely zero guarantee that what is legal according to the law is also moral (exhibit A: slavery).

Where are those asking whether such things as targeting killings (of American citizens or others) are morally right?  Reading the outcomes of our judicial system, it seems that just about anything can be argued to be legal, but where are the discussions of morality?  They are, in large part, nonexistent.

This is true not only in politics.  As a military chaplain, one of my mandated charges is to serve as a moral and ethical adviser to the chain of command.  While I have been consulted on personal ethical matters time and time again by commanders and individual airmen, I have never once been consulted on matters of morality regarding command decisions.  The JAG, of course, is consulted routinely to ensure whatever course of action is legally defensible.  It seems commanders can be easily removed for taking actions that are illegal, but as long as they are legal there seems to be little concern for whether or not they are ethical.

Simply because something is legal does not mean it is right.  We must to be concerned with both.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Mr. T in DC

Dehumanization and its Effects on Society

Over the weekend, NPR ran a story/review of Jonathon Littell’s book, The Kindly Ones, which they describe as “the fictional first-person memoir of a cultured German who loves Bach, cherishes great literature — and also happens to be a former Nazi exterminator.”  Interestingly, the writeup on NPR’s website focuses on the sexualization of violence and draws parallels between Nazi Germany and Abu Ghraib at the exclusion of what I think is Littell’s  larger point.  During the broadcast (available on the same web page linked above), Littell talks about the capacity of ordinary Americans (and others) to carry out atrocious acts against other people when placed in positions of “absolute power of life and death over people that their bosses tell them are not human beings and [are told] they can do anything they want with them.”  With this suggestion posed, he goes on to illustrate and support it with comparisons between Nazi Germany, the Balkan wars, and Abu Ghraib.Pain

The larger issue, however, is one that peaked my interest.  Almost two years ago, I wrote about the military’s use of desensitization as a part of military training.  In concert with this sort of training, nations and militaries have often resorted to dehumanization to bolster support for their cause during times of war.  If you don’t believe this, take a look at how we depicted Germans and Japanese on our own propaganda posters distributed during WWII.  Talk to a veteran of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, or the Middle Eastern theater and listen to the words they use to describe the enemy.  Without using the terms here, I think everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about.  By distancing ourselves from our enemies and suggesting that they are somehow subhuman, it becomes easier for us to rationalize and accept killing them, an act that at a very base human level is repulsive.  The atrocities of Abu Ghraib are one of the most poignant reminders that this kind of activities still take place, either as formal training or simply stemming from the individual soldier’s coping mechanisms.

This sort of dehumanization goes beyond times of war, however, and extends to most all acts of hatred and so-called ‘hate crimes’–from the cross-burning racism of the American South to genocide in various parts of Africa to the painting of swastikas on Jewish synagogues around the world to acts of harassment and brutality against homosexuals in the United States.  Look and listen to how people write and speak of those against which they wage any sort of these kinds of deeds.  They are presented as subhuman, unworthy, illegitimate, or (fill in the blank).

One of the very obvious yet unmentioned targets of dehumanization and its resulting atrocities are the unborn.  For many years now, those in positions of real power (government, courts, etc.) or perceived power (academia, special interest groups, etc.) have repeatedly told us that the unborn are not really children in the proper sense and so there is no issue in ‘aborting’ them.  This tactic is nothing more than what Littell described above.  Specifically, our ‘bosses’ have been telling us–we who have the power of life and death via our democratic process–that the unborn are not human beings and we can do anything we want with them.

So what am I saying?

  • Should we continue to ignore the widespread dehumanization of those different from us?  No.  We must be agents of change in spite of the very ‘deep ruts’ of history.
  • Should we marginalize and treat with disdain those who have had abortions?  No.  On the contrary, we should do everything in our power to help them heal.
  • Should we rally the voters to try an overturn Roe v. Wade?  Perhaps surprisingly, no.  As has been pointed out by Little Cog, “abortion is a moral decision…the state should keep its inept hands off of
  • Should we continue to condone desensitization/dehumanization as a means to advance our agendas, political or otherwise?  No.  If we cannot bring others to share our viewpoint without resorting to such despicable practices, perhaps this should be a clue that we are probably wrong to begin with.

Instead…

  • To social conservatives and social liberals alike, you must realize that you cannot rely on government to legislate your understanding of morality because ‘we the people’ are often as guilty of this wrong on the societal/governmental level as we are on the individual level
  • To social conservatives and social liberals alike, you must realize that no one wins when you resort to these tactics to make your case, pass your legislation, or further your agenda
  • To all, we must recognize the powerful effects of dehumanization as it rears its head in many different areas and in many different agendas…in order to reject it

Hurt