Do we need to change the Gospel to speak to today's world?
The question was asked this last week: are we preaching the 'wrong Gospel for today's world?' The implication being that we are, and we should change it so that it is more appealing to today's society. That is the question (or challenge) that Peter Crumpler, former Church of England communications director, asks in his most recent CT article and I'd like to propose an alternative answer if I may because, for a number of reasons, I don't think we are.
Peter suggests that we should shift the emphasis from guilt to shame because today's society would resonate better with that. Whereas in the past we spoke about the need to repent from our sins and seek forgiveness from Christ, now we should show people their true worth in Christ and turn them from shame.
From one perspective it's an attractive proposal. Telling people they are sinners is not attractive and telling them they should be freed from shame because they are worth it is a winning formula – just ask Joel Osteen! As the popular saying goes, Christ came to give us all our 'best life now'. But is it the Gospel?
Generally it is recognised that guilt is 'I have done something bad', whereas shame is 'I am bad'. Guilt is the wound; shame is the scar and the Bible clearly addresses both. Jesus talks about people being guilty of sin (John 9:41), Isaiah indicates the need for our guilt to be taken away and our sin atoned for (Isaiah 6:7). The Good News of the Gospel is clearly tied up with the fact that we commit sins. That is why Jesus tells us that we are to 'repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). In fact, Jesus goes so far as to say that if we do not repent, we will all perish (Luke 13;3).
The Gospel message of the early Church included the command to repent and turn to God so that our sins may be wiped out (Acts 3:19). In fact, God now commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30) and I believe we cannot change that message because we think it will be unattractive to modern culture. Apart from the fact that it's never been an attractive message in any culture, I'm afraid we just do not have the right to change the Gospel. It's God's good news – not ours. As 1 Corinthians 1 reminds us, it is through the foolishness of preaching the Cross, and not the wisdom of the world, that people are saved.
Peter is right to bring up shame as the Bible does also speak clearly about this, for example in Psalms 4:2 - "How long will you people turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?" But in my view, it is clear that shame is not divorced from sin but rather it is because of sin. It goes as far as to say that we make ourselves a stench and bring shame on ourselves (Proverbs 13:5). This is not the shame of status, or of what others think, or indeed of what others have done to us. It is the shame of who we are because of our own sin. Sobering words indeed.
When Paul warned the Philippians about false teachers, he described them in this way: "Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things" (Philippians 3:19). He also tells us that God shames the wise and strong by choosing the weak and foolish (1 Corinthians 1:27), and that those who are condemned to the blackest darkness forever are those who "foam up their shame" (Jude 13).
Shame in the Bible is never passive; it is always tied in with the guilt of what we do. And what we do is because of what we are. Brene Brown gives a very different definition of shame – "believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." The solution then is to "believe that we are worthy of love and belonging". But this is a desperately sad, delusional and ultimately graceless message. The truth is that grace tells us we are not worthy, but that Christ is – and that he comes to save us, not to tell us how worthy we are.
Rebecca Winfrey, also cited in the article, states, "In Victorian times people had a very strong sense of right and wrong beaten into them at school, and a very strong sense of their duty to do the right thing." But I believe this too to be unbiblical, the reason being that while we have a sense of right and wrong (and sense of duty), it is not because it is beaten into us (I suspect Rebecca is not an expert on Victorian history!), but rather because we have the law of God written in our hearts (Romans 2:15).
Peter rightly quotes Ephesians 2:10, which says "we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." But again, here I would argue that this text has been taken out of context - and a text out of context is just a pretext for whatever we want to say! Sorry Peter but with all the best will in the world, it is not the Gospel of God.
Personally, I don't believe this verse supports a sort of new Gospel telling people that Jesus came to tell them they are worthy. The same chapter says we were dead in transgressions (ch 2 vs 5). Dead, not worthy, not confused, not bearing other people's shame. And not just filled with shame, but dead. So dead in fact that we cannot even see the kingdom of God unless we are born again (John 3). We need to be made alive by Christ. Then, and only then, can we do these good works.
Peter is right in pointing to a wrong kind of shame – a sense of unworthiness which is caused by society, wrong judgements or, I would say, self-absorption. In one sense, that can be easily dealt with – it certainly doesn't require the Cross. But I would say that the biblical idea of shame is much deeper and therefore requires a much deeper solution than just telling people they are worthy. To present the Gospel as some kind of therapeutic solution for a psychological condition is no Gospel at all.
It's amazing that in all Paul's letters, he wrote to churches with deep problems – sexual immorality, incest, drunkenness at communion, factions, greed, idolatry and more. Yet to all of them he began with a commendation and thanks – except for one: his letter to the Galatian church. He was so astonished that they were turning to a gospel which is really no gospel at all, that he stated, "if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God's curse!" (Galatians 1:8).
I would conclude that the wrong gospel for today's world is any gospel that turns away from the Gospel given by Christ to his apostles and revealed to us in the New Testament. We don't have the authority, the ability or the wisdom to create a 'better Gospel'. Even if we mean well, I don't think we can improve upon the Apostolic Good News. To add or take from it would be to change it and I think in doing so, to change it would be in fact to pervert it.
So Peter, you asked the question and I hope you'll consider my quite different answer! That the Gospel the world needs today is the same that was preached in New Testament times – and which has been preached throughout the world by faithful churches ever since. Repent and believe the Good News about Jesus and you shall be saved. In conclusion, I don't believe we need a new Gospel. We simply need to return to the old one, the one given by Christ! Afterall, there is no other name, and no other Gospel, by which human beings can be saved (Acts 4:12).
David Robertson is director of Third Space in Sydney and blogs at www.theweeflea.com