The Gospel: A Solution In Search Of A Problem?

I was 14 years old, sitting in the front row of the outdoor auditorium at the Promised Land Camp listening in earnest to Pastor Brad Reider’s testimony of how before he got Saved™ he’d been a Really Bad Sinner. He’d given up smoking, drinking, doing drugs, and God knows what else. (Okay, I honestly don’t remember what he’d given up, though I’m pretty sure drinking was on the list). And I envied him. He could look back on his story and say, “Wow. Look what God did. I used to be a horrible person, but now I’m different.” I told Brad after the sermon that I wished I had his story, and he told me to never wish for somebody else’s story.

I grew up in church. My dad used to tell this false testimony about how he’d smoked, drank, and done drugs, and then given it all up when he accepted Christ at the age of six. There’s something endemic about that in certain branches of Christianity: You either have what’s known as a dramatic testimony, or you wish that you did so that you could know for sure that you were Saved™. In those branches, salvation is something you have to be sure that you’re sure that you’re sure of, or you might end up in Hell.

Chris Attaway brilliantly pointed out in a recent blog post that “…what passes as Christianity oftentimes has to invent the sickness in order to provide the cure.” He touched on Way of the Master techniques wherein you convince someone that they’re a sinner in order to convince them that they need to be Saved™. But that isn’t where I come from.

Where I come from, there is a pervasive belief that everybody needs to be Saved™. As the expression goes, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

The narrative goes like this: You go out, you sin really really bad, and then someone shares the gospel with you, you repent, and then you go and share the gospel with other Really Bad Sinners. But it doesn’t work like that. Some people don’t go out and act like Really Bad Sinners. I didn’t. I hate the smell of cigarettes, never did drugs, and never slept around. And that made me feel inferior. But the version of the gospel where you have to be a Really Bad Sinner was the only version of the gospel that I got growing up.

And that leads us to this article from Her.meneutics. It’s about “How our love of brokenness actually fails us.” Megan Hill talks about how Christian moms talk about how they’re the worst moms ever because their kids get their only protein through Cheetos. She’s concerned because, well…

Christ gives true hope to one who is the worst.

But these online confessions tend to underestimate sin. We read about spilled milk and overflowing laundry baskets and call it brokenness. We applaud the authors for being messy and raw. But sin is serious, and such posts can blur our understanding of what failure actually is.

And this, which I think is most illustrative:

Only when we acknowledge that we have really sinned can we be thankful for sin’s authentic remedy: Jesus our Savior. Messiness—of the it’s-been-a-rough-day variety—doesn’t require a Savior. My sin does.

Bam. There it is. The nail, grown for the sake of the hammer of salvation and grace, doesn’t work. The sin you’re clinging to as evidence of your need for grace isn’t really bad enough to be worthy of needing salvation.

But, Megan implies, we have other sins. She doesn’t mention what they are. It reminds me of the times I went to prayer advances, knowing full well that I was living stuck in a (very legal) addiction and listened to the sweet innocent conservative high school girls who had searched their souls for every possible sin available and “felt convicted” of pride. Which is a great backup sin to confess. If you can’t think of anything you’ve done wrong, probably because you’ve kept your nose clean, it’s probably because you’re proud. Either that or your pride is a result of your seeming sinlessness.

This isn’t to demean pride as a sin. Yes, it’s there, and it’s hazardous, but usually the pride being confessed is the less dangerous variety – I think I’m better than other people because I don’t do XYZ. It ignores the more dangerous variety, like the pride that assumes that we know exactly who God is and what God wants from other people.

Megan leans more toward the Way of the Master sinfulness that Chris Attaway later references, in which you list the ten commandments and then check them by Jesus’ interpretation to see if you’ve broken any, and if you have, you deserve to go to hell for all eternity, which I think goes just a wee bit past what justice would demand and into Les Miserables twenty-years-in-prison-for-stealing-a-loaf-of-bread territory.

So this leaves the goodie-two-shoes among us looking for nails on which to use the hammer of grace, because unless we’ve got our nail hammered in, we’re not Saved™ and not going to heaven. Megan has pulled the rug out from under the notion of maximizing our “little sins,” inadequacies, and imperfections to the point where they Truly Need Grace, and when we watch Way of the Master, we know deep down in our souls that Ray Comfort is psychotic, even if we’re not sure why. So we’re stuck. We can’t get saved unless we’re Really Bad Sinners, our inadequacies don’t count toward being Really Bad Sinners, and we know in our souls that Way of the Master is nonsense and not really the Master’s way at all… but if we don’t get saved, we go to Hell.

Which leaves us with the horrible option of becoming a Really Bad Sinner as our only means of receiving grace and salvation and not going to hell.

Or does it?

What if salvation wasn’t about stopping being a Really Bad Sinner?

What if the stories we heard, though good stories, were never intended by God to be normative?

What if the people with the crazy stories don’t have a monopoly on salvation?

What if salvation means something more?

What if, as Peter Enns suggests, God saves us through doubt from our certainty that we know who God is and what God is about?

What if God saves us from our prosperity?

What if God saves us from disaster, or poor decisions?

What if God saves us from ourselves?

Our false beliefs about ourselves?

Our false beliefs about God?

Paul tells us that we’ve all sinned. He tells that to people who know that we’ve all sinned. Because even if we don’t have Major Life-Damaging Sin, we probably will slip up eventually. And even if we don’t, salvation is more than not going to hell when you die, and God saves us in other ways besides stopping us from being Really Bad Sinners.

The world is broken. Evil is out there, and we are all complicit in it. Every time we eat chocolate or buy clothing that was made in Bangladesh, we are complicit in it.

Also keep in mind that sin is not only individualistic, but corporate, and that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Jesus has plenty to do. And he didn’t tell you to be saved in the not-going-to-hell-by-accepting-Jesus sense. Ever. But he did say to follow him. And his mission statement was this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Amen.

Also, for the love of God, read Morgan’s and Chris’s comments below. They’re amazing.

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.

  • Isn’t our sin — a quite grievous sin at that, for which we should feel right guilt — our complicity in or indifference to oppression and injustice?

    • That seems like a reasonable statement.

  • To me, sin is always a version of self-righteousness whether it’s the prudish self-righteousness of a fundamentalist teenager or the nihilistic self-righteousness of a ruthless drug cartel hit-man. Salvation to me is when I accept God’s mercy and eschew meritocracy. I am not saved from God’s punishment; I am saved from the punishment of my self-exile.

  • Any sin at all, even the slightest, requires redemption and salvation. Among those living a life in God, the chief of these is ingratitude, taking for granted the redemption by God, which is itself a form of pride.

    • Oddly enough, your link is a perfect example of the sort of soul-searching the “prayer advance” advanced. Their handout was very similar.

      • The whole point of the Old Testament is the total and complete abhorrence of even the slightest sin. That much is solid. Ditch this and you’re pretty much veering into Pelagian/semi-Pelagian territory.

        Now, the point of this abhorrence of sin is to deepen gratitude for the freedom from sin. This leads into sanctification, and being actually made holy. This sanctification is the point of the Christian life; it can only be done in light of the enormity of God’s grace and His free gift of forgiveness.

        In any complete understanding, there is a measured need for the reality of sin, the enormity of its consequences, and that, without sanctifying grace, even the slightest sin against an infinite God requires the infinite separation from God. (If we have been given sanctifying grace, then we should acknowledge that even the slightest sins are wedges to lead us into committing serious sins which really will end our friendship with God until restored again by the free act of his forgiveness and our repentance.)

      • I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are more meditations than on sin, but the one on sin is a necessary first meditation. After this, de Sales asks that we meditate on death, judgment, hell, heaven,

        Notably, before this are the meditations on creation, why we were created, and the gifts of God. Like I said, a measured view of sin, in the proper context — but pretty much the same view, as we have said.