A rallying cry in the Reformed community is the place of the gospel in the sermon. According to a widespread and conventional view in the Reformed
churches, a sermon is only properly called a sermon if its subject is the gospel. Any passage of scripture preached on must be mined to find its oblique reference to Christ. This led Nietzsche to cynically applaud Christians for their ability to find a cross in every piece of wood, and a resurrection in every cave.
But Luther was emphatic on this point, and when his parishioners asked him why we preached the gospel every single week, he responded that “I preach the gospel every week because every week you forget it.”
So mainstream Evangelical preachers like Rick Warren are criticized for “not preaching the gospel.” I am not familiar enough with Warren’s sermons to comment on this point, though I plan to download a few from the website to listen to and hear for myself. But I would not be surprised if I discover in them aspects of the gospel that my Calvinist brothers and sisters would not recognize as the gospel.
I (clearly) do not name myself as belonging to the Reformed stream. My roots are equally in the Anabaptist tradition (the so-called Radical Reformation, though this can become confusing) and in Wesleyan thought. And this is perhaps the point of the widest divergence between the Reformed traditions and other Christian streams: not free will vs. determinism, not individual vs. corporate election, but soteriology: the doctrine of salvation. What does it mean to be saved, and what does that salvation consist of?
And on this point, I feel that Calvinists think of the gospel as both too much and too little.
Adding to the gospel
Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright have both argued from opposite contexts (one a neo-Anabaptist, who blogs out of Portland coffee shops, and the other an Anglican bishop who writes 1000-page tomes out of abbeys and anchorages in Canterbury) that contemporary Christian teaching has confused the gospel with the message of salvation. The gospel, they have both concluded, is simply the message that Jesus has completed the Old Testament story of Israel, ending their exile and reestablishing the people of God around a new temple in himself. It is the message of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, his enthronement as the Son of God, the rightful king of all the earth. The message of salvation (“how we get saved”) follows from that, and that’s where discussions about justification, regeneration and imputation come in. But those discussions are not the gospel; they follow the gospel.
Many of my Reformed friends say very explicitly that if someone does not believe in imputed righteousness, for instance, they do not believe the gospel, and I think that’s a category mistake. Where is this gospel presented in Acts 2, when the church made three thousand converts? Where is this gospel in 1 Cor 15, when Paul says, “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you,” and then goes on to cite the word he preached, which amounts to saying that Jesus was dead, buried, resurrected and many people saw him?
So I am concerned that in some cases the gospel is being added to and weighed down, when we tie the message about Jesus with our beliefs about how the message of Jesus functions to reconcile us to God.
Yet subtracting from it?
And the deep irony is that in doing this, we are at the same time undercutting the scope of the gospel, which is not just about getting out of hell free. The gospel is a message of cosmic importance. It is not just about saving human souls, getting them safely off to heaven when they die. It is about redeeming the whole creation, every particle of it, and sanctifying human life and (even) community, every aspect of it. God doesn’t care only for the soul, but for the whole person.
Here I think a comparison of Left Behind and some statements from John Wesley is instructive. I believe Left Behind is a work that could only emerge from a Reformed tradition (in this case sort of quasi-reformed, as both its authors are Southern Baptists).
The Left Behind books were extremely evangelistic, and present their salvation message repeatedly, beginning within the first four pages of the first book. Here is their first and most representative account of what salvation means: “Saved people aren’t good people, just forgiven.” Salvation here has only to do with forgiveness, not with being people who “live holy lives.”
John Wesley, on salvation: “By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, the way it is popularly talked about, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven. But a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity, a recovery of the divine nature, the renewal of our souls. I mean that God actually changes us here to be ready for that future.”
Left Behind shows its Calvinist view of salvation particularly in who salvation is open to. There are numbers and quotas. In the sixth book of the series, we’re informed that less than 25% of the world was raptured, and the books stress that there are set limits of how many will convert during the seven year period between the rapture and the end of the world, for instance, among the ethnically Jewish, there will be 144,000, no more and no fewer.
Wesley, by contrast, believed that God empowered all to accept salvation, if they choose to turn to God. He did not believe all would be saved, but believed all could be saved. He believed “the love of God from which comes our salvation is free in all and free for all.”
But we can really see how Left Behind limits the scope of the gospel by asking what salvation does. Is it just for the soul, or is it for all aspects of life? What changes when someone is saved? In Left Behind, it is primarily a change of status, being moved from one list to another. Then, when you die, your soul goes to heaven instead of hell: one of the books is even titled “Soul Harvest.” In another book, salvation is described like this: “Those who have trusted Christ have been written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, so that when they die physically they remain alive spiritually and are never blotted out.” One of central themes of the Bible, resurrection, is not hinted at as part of what salvation.
For Wesley, on the other hand, God cares about human life as a whole, body and soul. He wrote in a letter, “It will be a double blessing if you give yourself up to the Great Physician, that he may heal soul and body together. Unquestionably this is God’s design. He wants to give you, my dear Mrs. Knox, both inward and outward health.” God cares not only about your soul, but about your body, mind, emotions and relationships. There is no “health-and-wealth gospel” here, as Wesley realizes that not all things will be perfect, and thatsuffering is part of the bargain (“take up your cross and follow me”). Further, Wesley recognized that the gospel is for all of creation, including animals. God raises all things up.
John Calvin actually did believe in the presence of animals in the afterlife. He didn’t want to, but he was convinced that the way to read scripture was to take its plain meaning, and there is just too much talk of animals in the new creation to ignore. So Calvin creatively posited that there would be animals in the afterlife, but that they would exist in a physical world on which humans would only gaze from heaven, like a kind of free-range zoo. For Wesley, animals, the creation and humans were interrelated in such a way that God would raise them all together, as a redeemed whole. And because God cares about the whole creation, so should we.
But my point is this: the neutered gospel of Left Behind is the logical conclusion of the way that the gospel is conflated with the message of salvation in Reformed circles. Many Reformed Christians rise above their doctrine in the same way many atheists live good lives despite their nihilism. But the gospel as a message of how to get saved is simply insufficient to the whole scope of the gospel message.
So what about our sermons? Is it incumbent on us to make the message of Christ’s kingship the subject of every sermon? Is there no room for sermons exploring the ramifications of that enthronement, sermons about the role of the church in the city, or in the nation? Sermons about restoring relationships? Granted that these all these must be shaped around the cross of Christ, but are they not subjects worth preaching about in their own right?
What do you think?