Last Monday evening I attended a public lecture given by Tom Wright (also known as R.T. Wright), the ex Bishop of Durham and a lecturer at St Andrews University and as you might expect a very clever and able man. His lecture was on “How do we speak about God in a confused world?” which basically translated to the role of the Christian faith in public discourse. His lecture was almost brilliant. But the almost left me feeling troubled.
The brilliance was in his insight into modern culture and it's failings; the divinity of progress now that any conception of god has been removed, the failure of science-ism (hot air, resting on thin air, leaving us in mid air, as he wonderfully said) and the place of Christianity in Western society. His diagnoses was accurate but in describing Christianity as the solution he worried me.
The almost was in what he did not say. This makes it a subtle error but it has been my observation that often the most tricky errors are found in what is not said rather than what is. Before I get to the exact error of omission that was concerning I think it is necessary to say that Tom Wright is hardly the only one doing this. Indeed, he acts a figurehead for a broader church wide movement of not preaching the gospel as well as it should be preached. From my own experience I find it most common in evangelical charismatic circles but it is creeping into conservative circles too.
You've heard this gospel before. It's focus is always the same: Jesus came to rescue us and make us new. Being a Christian is about getting a new hope, a new perspective, a new life, a new friend, entering and expanding a new kingdom. The God of the Old Testament is replaced by the God of the New Testament, who in love sends Jesus to die for us, to make us new. Christianity works out this new perspective, it grows because the early Christians take on-board all the new ideas and help the poor and needy. In a confusing world it is only the radical new vision of Christianity that can help.
This is a Kingdom heavy, a New-ness heavy, a restoration heavy, a social justice heavy narrative of redemption.
And in what it says it is biblical. It is good and right and proper. I could list Bible verses supporting every single one of it's claims; I agree (pretty much) with all of the claims it makes. It's also dangerously out of kilter.
It is the Almost Gospel. For it's almost a faithful presentation of the gospel. Almost. The problem lies specifically in what is missing from this gospel; what was missing from Tom's lecture. Today, people and churches and speakers seem to think that it is possible to preach the gospel without majoring (or even minoring) on sin.
Sin is important. And when it comes to the Almost Gospel, the lack of a robust theology of sin is a big problem. If the gospel was a symphony this lack would be the note out of place, the discordant sound that ruins the total performance by it's ugliness. For what value is the new man if we are never told about the corruption of the old?
The first message Jesus preached was “Repent.” Upon seeing Jesus for the first time John the Baptist cried: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Romans 1 is all about the wickedness and rebellion of mankind in our natural state as unconverted sinners. The cross is only necessary because our sins nail Jesus there. There is a stark judgement made against humanity: we are god hating, rebellious and seek after anything other than the living true God.
But you would not think it. At least, I have heard a large number of gospel talks at CU events, weddings and other intersections with the wider church, where the gospel message preached is thoroughly absent of any reference to sin and it's brothers: judgement and Hell. Or if sin is talked about (and the word is rarely used) it will be discussed in its horizontal concept: the wrong man does man rather than in the vertical: the sin of man against God. And is likely to be discussed only in passing, by passing lightly over it, a kind of "well, you're not perfect, but who is?" attitude that spectacularly fails to convey the serious of our sin problem.
In other words, it is a gospel made palatable to the modern man. A gospel where there is only love and only newness and only hope. And who doesn't like love, hope and being new? It is a gospel devoid of challenge, an almost gospel to slip past the conscience without stirring it. But this is not reality. Reality is the fact that there is an exceeding great abundance of love, likewise of hope and likewise of newness. And there is also the stern truth of judgement, Hell and the condemnation of the whole human race for “there is no one who does good, no not one”. There is the reality of the final despairing torment of unbelievers spending eternity getting punished for their rebellion against their Creator.
As Paul says in Romans “Behold the goodness and severity of God” Yet the Almost Gospel focuses only on the narrative of goodness skipping over the rightful severity of a holy God.
Imagine it be otherwise and all that is spoken about is the wretched misery of man before God, his hopelessness, his inability to save himself. This is all true, but if that was all that was spoken of then it would be no gospel either, there would be no good news to speak of. This, we all agree, would be a tragedy, a missed opportunity, a corruption of the gospel we hold dear.
In the same way, if all we preach is love and all we preach is new life and all we preach is the kingdom coming then we fail in our duty to preach the gospel faithfully. We need to hold out the full gospel message – the certainty of judgement and Hell, the terrible condition of humanity in our sin and rebellion and the holiness of God that burns against all evil. And the hope that we have in Jesus, the need for faith in him, the need for repentance of sin, a turning away from evil and a turning to Christ, the infinite extent of forgiveness found at the cross and the glorious hope of new life found at the resurrection.
The Almost Gospel is a bitter message, a message that grieves me when I hear it. “Just say the word sin!” I feel like shouting to the speaker “Be honest about it! Preach it all!” I have heard men stuttering on the edge, so it seems, of giving full voice to the severity of the gospel message but drawing back too afraid to cross.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” The classic hymn goes and how I wish that when the gospel was preached our lostness was preached, our blindness and wretchedness revealed for all to see. For only then is the gospel sweet, only then is grace amazing.
“Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” said the man who went away justified before God. How can we expect people to understand the mercy they need if we do not tell them of the sinner they are? We live in a self righteous age, an age where modern man is too good to be deserving of Hell and too proud to see his blindness. Shall we pander to these sensibilities, preaching an Almost Gospel that soothes the conscience and cuddles up to self entitlement? Or shall we preach the gospel as we find it, in words bold and stark, that every one is in desperate need of turning to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, trusting in him for the right standing before God so hopelessly lacking in their own souls?
To close, here are the words of one of my favourite modern hymns which captures the sinfulness of sin and the gospelness of the gospel:
"I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way
The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave
I had no hope that You would own
A rebel to Your will
And if You had not loved me first
I would refuse You still
But as I ran my hell-bound race
Indifferent to the cost
You looked upon my helpless state
And led me to the cross
And I beheld God’s love displayed
You suffered in my place
You bore the wrath reserved for me
Now all I know is grace
Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life
Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me
Oh Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You."