Evangelicalism’s Heretical Gospel

Evangelicalism’s Heretical Gospel

By Ron Sider

As the sexual revolution starting in the 60s swept across the nation, evangelicals divorced at almost the same rate as the rest of America. Rather than living like Jesus, we conformed to surrounding sinful culture. And today American evangelical youth and vast numbers of global evangelicals are dumbfounded as prominent American evangelical leaders and vast numbers of their followers fail to oppose or even justify racism, attacks on immigrants, abuse of women, blatant dishonesty, and idolatrous nationalism. American youth who grew up in evangelical churches are abandoning evangelicalism and sometimes even Christian faith in droves. For someone like myself who has devoted all his life to trying to help evangelicals follow Jesus more faithfully, it is a time to weep.

But I do not despair. I believe the resurrected Jesus is still Lord. I believe the Bible is still God’s unique, authoritative revelation. 

Close to the heart of our problem, close to the tragic failure of evangelicalism, is a one-sided unbiblical understanding of the gospel. Vast segments of popular evangelicalism and some of our theologians seem to think the gospel is just forgiveness of sins. Jesus just came to die for our sins so we could go to heaven when we die. My friends, if that is all the gospel is, then it is a one-way ticket to heaven and we can live like hell until we get there.

But that is simply not what Jesus said his gospel is. In dozens and dozens of places, Jesus clearly said his gospel is the good news of the kingdom of God. He meant that the long-expected messianic Kingdom was actually arriving in his person and work. He was the Messiah and his messianic Kingdom was now breaking into history.

There were clearly two parts to Jesus’ dawning kingdom. Jesus told parable after parable teaching that God is like the father of the prodigal son. God stands with arms outstretched, eager to forgive prodigal sons and daughters who repent. Jesus died on the cross as our substitute. As a result, we broken sinners can stand before a holy God assured of forgiveness through the cross. That is an absolutely wonderful part of Jesus’ gospel!

But that is only one-half of Jesus’ gospel. The prophets promised that when the Messiah came, there would be not only a new vertical relationship with God, but also renewed horizontal right relationships with neighbors. There would be peace and justice in society. Jesus defined his mission in Luke chapter 4 quoting from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus said he came “to proclaim good news to the poor.” To “proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” And Jesus practiced what he preached. He healed the sick and the blind. When he sent out his disciples, he told them to announce the kingdom and heal the sick. And he warned his followers that if they did not feed the hungry and clothe the naked, they would depart eternally from God.

Jesus’ Gospel clearly produced a new community of disciples who started to live dramatically differently from surrounding society. Jewish men in Jesus’ day often repeated a prayer where they thanked God they were not gentiles, slaves or women. In Jesus’ new community of the early church, Paul could declare confidently that there was neither Jew or Gentile,  slave or free, rich or poor, male or female because they were all one in Christ. Central to their understanding of Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom was the fact that it demanded new socio-economic relationships in the body of Christ. That meant that the worst racial hatred in the ancient world was being overcome as Jews accepted gentiles as brothers and sisters. That meant that the rich shared dramatically with the poor. That meant that men accepted women as equals in Christ’s new kingdom. These new socio-economic relationships in the body of Christ are just as much a part of the gospel as forgiveness of sins.

In both testaments and throughout history, we see God’s people trying to separate their relationship with God from their relationship with people. We would like to be accepted with God without that affecting how we treat our neighbor. If Jesus’ gospel were just forgiveness of sins, that would work. We could get saved and still go on being racist, sexist, and unconcerned about the poor. And that is what so much of evangelicalism has done and still does. The blatant moral failure of so much of American evangelicalism results to a significant degree from this failure to see that Jesus’ gospel includes both forgiveness of sins and the call to be Jesus’ new socio-economic community rejecting racism, sexism, idolatrous nationalism and hatred of enemy.

Our one-sided gospel is actually heresy. Heresy is never a total denial of revealed truth. Rather it is a one-sided embrace of part of the truth in a way that ignores another important part. That is what popular evangelicalism has done by defining the gospel only as forgiveness of sins rather than with Jesus as the gospel of the kingdom. I think that a one-sided, heretical gospel is a central cause of the cheap grace so widespread in the evangelical church. If evangelicals are to follow Jesus rather than the world in the area of divorce; if we are to follow Jesus rather than the world in our racial attitudes, economic practices, attitudes about truth and treatment of women; then we must recover Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom. We must embrace both the vertical and horizontal aspects of Jesus’ gospel. We must recover the biblical balance that emphasizes the fact that Jesus’ gospel includes both the wonderful reality that God forgives sinners and the fact that Jesus’ kingdom community is to be a new visible society now living in faithfulness to all Jesus taught.

If the gospel is not just forgiveness of sins, but the good news of the kingdom of God, we cannot separate a reconciled relationship with God and a reconciled relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ’s body. If the gospel is not just forgiveness of sins, but the good news of the kingdom of God, we must understand that reconciled social and economic relationships in the body of Christ are one part of salvation. If the gospel is not just forgiveness of sins, but the good news of the kingdom of God, we understand more clearly that ministry to both the physical and spiritual needs of people is not some optional possibility but essential to the gospel. If the gospel is not just forgiveness of sins, but the good news of the kingdom, we see more vividly that the Christian community, if it is faithful, will always challenge what is wrong in the status quo. If the gospel is not just forgiveness of sins, but the good news of the kingdom of God, then any sharing of the gospel that does not include a significant concern for the poor is unbiblical. If the gospel is not just forgiveness of sins but the good news of the kingdom of God, we see more clearly that there must always be a sharp distinction between the church and the world. And if the gospel is not just forgiveness of sins but the good news of the kingdom of God, we cannot share the gospel adequately just by preaching. We have to live it too. Words and deeds must go together.

I am absolutely convinced that this full biblical gospel is what our broken world needs. It certainly needs the fantastic news of forgiveness. But it also longs to hear and see the amazing truth that right now there is a reconciled and reconciling community that broken people can enter and be loved and nurtured toward wholeness. If even a quarter of the world’s Christians would both preach and live Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom, we would see revival and church growth on a scale never before seen.

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