Do Evangelicals Need a Better Gospel?

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There has been a lot of talk in recent days about “evangelical” and whether that’s a political or cultural label, a theological label, or inescapably both.

I don’t presume to have the perfectly objective perspective. But let me lay out what I see from my corner, and then tell you the three things I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and fight for.

First, I saw the pollsters tell us that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and a similar percentage in Alabama voted for Roy Moore. Oh boy. I knew a storm was coming.

Second, I saw many younger Christians and Christians of color feel betrayed by these votes and begin to say, “Let’s be done with evangelicals.”

Third, I heard older and often whiter evangelicals (like me?) responding, “Wait a second. There’s a difference between ‘evangelical’ as a theological label and ‘evangelical’ as a political or cultural movement. Please don’t draw too many conclusions from those who tell pollsters  they’re ‘evangelical.’ Many of them aren’t. Please don’t give up on the gospel.”

And finally, I’ve heard the younger crowd reply, “Hold on. You don’t get off the hook that easy. Our theology always shapes our politics. So check your gospel. It’s too individualistic, too blind to Christ’s work of reconciling the nations, too indifferent to matters of justice.”

Controversial Tweet

Versions of this conversation are showing up in a number of places. For instance, it showed up in response to a tweet from Tim Keller:

The second crowd, again, felt like this was one more example of an individualistic gospel, a gospel that’s unconcerned with matters of justice and cosmic reconciliation. They asked: Tim, what about the fact that Jesus said he came to preach to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, recover sight to the blind, and set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18)? Keller replied that he used the word “primarily,” but his point was lost in the conversation that followed.

So that’s a brief recap of the conversation I’ve watched roll out over social media of late. Certainly, I’m painting in broad strokes. I don’t have answers as to whether we should use the term “evangelical” or not. But what makes me nervous, and the reason I’m jumping in, is when people start talking about what the gospel is or is not.

In his book Generous Justice, Keller uses the clunky but crucial phrase “inseparable asymmetry” (136–37). The phrase helps us understand both the gospel and also the implications of the gospel for the church’s mission.

Here then is gauntlet I will throw down: I will fight to the death over the “asymmetry,” and I will fight to the death over the “inseparable.” I hope you will, too.

Let me explain . . .

1. The Primary Problem Solved by the Gospel Is Our Sin against God

That is the “asymmetry” I will fight to the death to defend. Keller’s tweet—all the way.

God is the measure of all things. Sin against others is only “sin” because it’s sin against him (Ps. 51:4). Sin means falling short of his glory and his law, not yours or mine.

God is God. We are not. The platform holding up Keller’s tweet is the very Godness of God as well as the holiness of God. Sin is measured against him first, against us derivatively. That’s the asymmetry.

I fear that too many of us have lost sight of the holiness of God and the offensiveness of sin, which means we’ve also lost sight of how amazing grace is. (I fear I do this every day.) Grace isn’t amazing if sin against God isn’t that bad.

Grace isn’t amazing if sin against God isn’t that bad.

To treat our sin against God and our sin against others as co-equal is to make us—as one false teacher put it—“like God” (Gen. 3:5). It treats our law and our glory as independent of his and therefore capable of being transgressed in equivalent fashion. Now, I don’t assume anyone means to do this. But I propose that this is the logical consequence of denying point one. Deny point one, and we lose Christianity, because we’ve become gods ourselves.

The heart of the gospel is the promise of forgiveness for sin against God: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).

That said . . .

2. The Secondary Problem Solved by the Gospel Is Our Sin against Others

This is the “inseparable” part many of us—black, white, and others—have been preaching about and explaining for years.

We can’t separate sin against others from sin against God: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20).

We can’t separate Christ’s work on the cross of reconciling us to the Father from his work of reconciling us to one another:

But God . . . made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved . . . . But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. (Eph. 2:4–5, 13–14).

We can’t separate our faith from a life of obedience: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22).

We can’t separate individual injustices from the structural injustices they yield (e.g., Esther 3:7–14; Isa. 10:1–2; Luke 11:46; Acts 6:1–2; James 2:1–9).

To put it another way, the second group is exactly right: our theology always shapes our politics.

And, for my part, I think that all of us, whether on the Left or Right, whether majority or minority, could do a better job in our theology of explaining the corporate shape and implications of the gospel.[1] For instance, our entire elder board read Divided by Faith and benefited tremendously from its descriptions of racialization and structural injustices. You should read it, too. I’d agree with its critique of many conservative statements of faith: they can be overly individualistic.

But don’t look there for a better articulation of the gospel. Please, please, do not do away with sola fide. It alone offers the right and biblical asymmetry. Yet we need to do a better job of explaining its covenantal, corporate, and political meaning, as I have tried to do in a long-winded fashion here.

Please, please, do not do away with the call to individual conversion as the most important decision a person will ever make. But let’s recognize how deeply corporate this doctrine is, as I’ve also tried to demonstrate here. God saves us into a people.

And then there is the church. Goodness, yes, it’s political, as I argue here and here. It’s where our politics begins and assumes shape. It’s where we learn and model for the nations what true justice and righteousness look like, and it should be a fountain of justice and righteousness spilling out into the public square. In fact, I’m willing to say, if your politics only exists in the public square, and you’re not putting on love and good deeds toward the members of your church, I’m not sure if you’re a Christian. That’s like teaching a class on parenting while neglecting your kids at home.

And if your justice and righteousness aren’t spilling outward, each according to his or her calling, then I’m not sure you’re a Christian either. True faith always gives way to deeds, justification to justice.

True faith always gives way to deeds, justification to justice.

I hardly assume that my theological formulations match heaven’s. I do assume that brothers and sisters from different times, places, and colors could improve upon them, adding some things, subtracting or refining others. I think Jemar Tisby was on to something when he tweeted, “Voices from the margins actually tend to be ‘more’ helpful in parsing the current state of evangelicalism.”

When you’re in power, you have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That can make it harder to see various forms of injustice. Often, those on the periphery will call attention to those injustices. Christians in the majority or in positions of authority should continually work to cultivate the selflessness of Christ by listening to such voices and searching out both instruction and also injustices, even if it means disrupting the status quo and upending one’s own power. Bible scholar Leon Morris observed that justice in Scripture isn’t about “adherence to custom” or a “retention of the older order”; rather it’s “nothing less than revolutionary dynamite.”

Still, we can only speak to what we presently know, and these first two points speak to my understanding of “gospel” and “Christian.” If you substantially disagree with either principle, you and I have a different understanding of those two words. That said, when whites or conservatives only acknowledge principle one and not two, minorities understandably feel like we “don’t get it.” People like me need to strive harder to speak and write with the both/and.

3. Let’s Preserve Gospel Unity by Giving Grace and Protecting Christian Liberty

Yet there is one more matter which I want to address, because I think it keeps tripping up American Christians. I’ll fight to the death over the first two principles. I’ll fight over this one, but maybe not to the death. We need to allow each other the space to come to different partisan and policy solutions in matters of justice. Churches should bind consciences where Scripture binds consciences, as well as in matters that can be inferred “by good and necessary consequence.” But once you get two, three, or four logical steps away from Scripture, please be careful about imposing your views on others and making your views the standard of Christian faithfulness. None of us is an apostle. We don’t know Jesus’s mind on many of the public policy issues of the day.

Until you are ready to excommunicate someone who belongs to a different party than you because that party membership is so clearly contrary to the gospel—as one might, for instance, with a member of the Nazi Party—then we must therefore preserve space for Christian liberty. We must give grace and the benefit of the doubt.

If you can’t share the Lord’s Supper with a sincere heart and love with someone who voted differently from you in the last election, then I fear you may have subverted the gospel to your party and your policies.

If you can’t share the Lord’s Supper with a sincere heart and love with someone who voted differently from you in the last election, then I fear you may have subverted the gospel to your party and your policies.

I’m happy for Christians to advocate strongly for their policy positions. Write books. Hold marches. Go! That’s part of seeking justice and loving neighbor. But when we mistake our non-biblically scripted political positions for God’s, we do violence to the consciences of others and the gospel. This, I believe, has been one of the greatest errors evangelicals have made for years—confusing their politics with God’s. And now I would plead with everyone not to mimic this error, even if it’s a different set of policies and candidates you favor.

Together with our Christian freedom, however, oh friend, please recognize how deep people’s experiences and convictions go. Recognize that your stance might offend, even hurt someone else profoundly. Give them space to question and challenge you. Christian liberty is not an excuse for a defensive posture. It’s a reason to work harder at understanding, loving, and learning amid disagreement.

Imagine an American landscape filled with multi-ethnic and multi-partisan churches.

Imagine an American landscape filled with multi-ethnic and multi-partisan churches. Sitting in the pews are people who share little in common but the gospel. The gospel that unites them, we might say, is greater than the politics that divide them. Or, better, we could say that they have given themselves over entirely to a new creation politics, a gospel politics, a born-again politics.

I trust I’m leaving out many complexities. I don’t think this is the only word in the conversation. Yet I will fight for these three principles, and I pray you would do the same.


[1] If I might defend Keller once more, I think he understands this entirely, which is why his New Yorker piece refers to the unexpected political alliances gospel believers will pursue.

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