It is likely a common experience for a devotee of any particular doctrine of theology to come to a point where they honestly question the doctrine they hold. This questioning of our own doctrine is not necessarily healthy, nor is it unhealthy. In one sense we can constantly question and come to a point where we believe questioning everything is a virtue in itself, and our primary doctrine becomes a command to ‘question everything.’ Unfortunately that process is not as virtuous as it first appears. If ones primary doctrine is that to question everything is virtuous, then answers or truths become inherently evil, for if there is an answer or truth regarding a particular question the question is solved. Any sort of absolute becomes the enemy of the doctrine of ‘question all’. On the flip side, to hold doctrine without ever bringing it into question is equally dangerous. To never question anything is to assume that at some point in history you achieved perfection in your understanding and to refuse to question is to permanently lock your intellect and spirit in that one place and to arrogantly believe you have arrived. The bottom line is that questioning that honestly seeks answers is healthy, even questioning very foundational truths in some sense shows more faith than not questioning at all. When you question foundational truths you show faith that those truths can withstand your questions.
With that background laid out I want to bring forth a doctrinal stance that I have brought into question recently, and it is a doctrine that in my estimation is foundational to the Christian faith. In some sense a part of me thinks I should feel guilty for even questioning it, but now that I am on the other side of the question mark I am thankful that I asked it. The question is simple “Is the Gospel actually the simple message that Christ has done all that is required of us for salvation?” Now before I delve into the process of my questioning I will simply state the conclusion, which is; “Yes, that is the Gospel message.” Yet it is an honest question, and one that needs to be asked and answered because the answer to that question drives everything that is Christian.
In recent years, thanks to some reformed and Lutheran friends and authors, I have been led through the scriptures to believe that Gospel is news, independent of all personal action, that Christ has paid my penalty, lived the life required of me, and rose from the dead making me not guilty of His death and the proper recipient of His life. The implications of this understanding of the Gospel shattered both my lingering shreds liberalism and my strong fundamentalism. It shredded the liberalism that led me to believe that social justice and service we in some sense part of the essence of the Gospel, and it shredded my fundamentalism that believes that somehow my changed life is part of the essence of the Gospel. This understanding has left me with the bare truth that Christ alone is the essence of the Gospel, and that the Gospel is something entirely apart from me, or entirely external.
Now, after being brought to full commitment in this doctrine of a Gospel that is external to me, I then came to a place where I began to question this. The primary question I asked is this: “If the Gospel is entirely external to me, then is it really true that, with regards to salvation, my actions are irrelevant?” Of course to have true commitment to an external Gospel the answer to that question must be “yes”, but is that answer really yes? That is a hard question to wrestle with because the implications of a “yes” answer seems to scream “antinomian” (lawless). If I am to continue with a “yes” answer to that question I must dismiss the fundamentalist notion that “if I am saved, I will no longer do x, y, and z sins. If I answer “yes” I must also dismiss the liberal notion that “salvation is to become one who serves the poor and makes the world a better place in the name of Christ.” Both of those notions are difficult to dismiss, especially when they have become a part of the fabric of what I have grown to know about Christianity. While my answer has been “yes” to that question for a couple of years now, that “yes” answer has been tentatively hanging in the balance. A recent experience has solidified that “yes” answer.
A couple of nights ago my wife and I were at a coffee shop hanging out when a homeless man came in to get a cup of tea. He kept to himself, and we kept to ourselves. Eventually the time came for us to leave and I walked over to him before leaving and began to make some small talk with him. This was not a “missional” thing or some spiritual endeavor to serve the poor, or get someone saved. I simply saw a lonely looking guy and thought I would have a conversation with him partially because I thought he would enjoy it, and also because I just enjoy conversation. I was simply being a human, there was no conscious attempt to do a good deed. Our conversation progressed, and we ended up giving him a ride to a hotel ten miles away and put him up for the night there. Again, this was more about being a good human than anything else, a member of any faith, or even an atheist can do this sort of thing, it requires very little character for someone who is comfortable with people. This man, Mike, immediately upon getting into the car began speaking of Christianity. He had no idea that I was a pastor, it seemed that he assumed we were Christians by the simple fact that we were giving him a ride. As he opened up to us we found out that He lived in a monastery for a year and has sought with all his might to live a Christian life. In our age of contemplation this man seemed to have arrived. He had given up all to live a simple life of dependence on God. He had taken the concept of monasticism to its final conclusion. As he continued speaking, this man affirmed to us that he was currently in utter despair regarding his soul. Why? He kept saying that he wondered if he had done enough. While early in his life he sought poverty believing that was part of the essence of Christianity, he now wrestled with the reality that he had nothing of substance to give to those who had need. His poverty that He embraced now became his source of despair. The very fact that he needed to receive a ride from someone else caused him to believe he was not a Christian because he was receiving instead of giving.
This man was taught that the Gospel meant to give to everyone, yet he came to a place where he had little or nothing to give and was met with despair. This man was a clear picture of what currently theology promoted by the emergent movement and new monasticism eventually leads to… despair.
At this point, I had yet to reveal to him that I was Christian, let alone a pastor. As I was thinking during this conversation I was being reminded of the words of Pastor Mike Slaughter who said “If the Gospel is not good news to the poor, it is not the Gospel.” Unfortunately, pastor Mike, used this true statement to come to a false conclusion. The conclusion was that if your Gospel does not include service to the poor, it must not be the Gospel. The problem was that this homeless man’s Gospel was completely saturated with the command that he must serve the poor, and his means no longer allowed him to do so. Pastor Mike’s statement was true, if the Gospel is not good news to the poor, it most certainly was not the Gospel, but Pastor Mike’s conclusion was anything but good news to the truly poor. This poor man had embraced the emergent theology all the way into poverty and was left without good news, he was left only with commands he could never obey.
I revealed at some point in the conversation who I was, and what my vocation was, only because this man was dying to have a statement from the Church that he was somehow acceptable to God. This man needed an alternate message than the one he had committed his entire being to, and to hear that answer from an ecclesiastical authority meant a lot to him. I proceeded to proclaim the Gospel apart from works, the plain message that Christ has accomplished EVERYTHING on his behalf regardless of what he had or had not done. Possibly for the first time he had heard a Gospel that was truly good news for the poor. It made sense, and it was good news, with no strings attached.
If I still held firm to the fundamentalist Gospel I would have had to tell him about how he had to clean up his life, I would have had to convince him of his sin, bring him to a place even lower than he was in order that he would see his need. If I still held to the liberal Gospel I would have had to relax his despair be telling him that his poverty was honorable and that because he embraced it he was more Christian than most of the world. Both options would have left him in despair, because he knew what he had done was not enough. Instead I embraced the answer of “yes” to the question “Is the Gospel truly external to us, and independent of our actions?” Both Mike, the homeless man, and I can be thankful that the answer to that question is indeed yes.
Did I serve this man? Did I get him a room? Yeah. Did I engage a lonely man conversation? Sure I did those things. More than that, I shared the simple truth, the only truth, that is truly good news to the poor, and in the process it affirmed to me that the Gospel truly is external.
Beyond that I did something that might make a number of readers of this blog cringe. I absolved him of his sin. He heard the message of this external Gospel, in as far as I could tell he embraced this message of real hope that is independent of his action, and I pronounced to him that he was forgiven in the name of Christ. The man who had heard nothing from Churches except the constant calling to be something he was not, and to be something he could never be, heard from a pastor the reality that he was forgiven because of something done FOR HIM.
So before you get amped up on calling everyone to service to the poor, or calling everyone to separate from the world, or demanding people to be a new creation in Christ, think about the logical conclusion of those commands, think about the person who embraces those commands to the fullest and what they will finally become. On Saturday night I met the embodiment of what those commands produce if taken to their final and logical conclusion, and what I found was nothing but despair. Praise God that the commands of the Law are not the pronouncement of the Gospel.