The Gospel In One Word? Go With “Repent!” (And Say It With Love, Joy, Peace, Forbearance, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.)

WLO_proclaimgospelApparently seven and ten word gospel summaries are now for amateurs. Craig Bubeck throws down the gospel gauntlet with his feature piece for Christianity Today, The Whole Gospel in One Word, and contends that that one word is love:

It’s no less than the essence of Jesus’ good news. The gospel is all about God’s love, our inability to love (sin), and God’s sacrificial remedy (love incarnate). All we must do is believe in his means of redemptive love (Jesus Christ and his gospel story) and respond in kind.

Though as will quickly become apparent I disagree with Craig’s premise, I would equally quickly note that his position is far deeper and more biblically faithful than most of the folks in the CT comment section give him credit for (click here to see a summary and online order form to download Craig’s bible study, God is Love: No Buts About It). I also would concur with Craig and, you know, the Apostle John, that God is love.

Where I respectfully part company with Craig is in his assessment that most Christians “squirm at the announcement of God’s love”:

Whenever any kind of apologetic or doctrinal debate turns toward love, don’t many of us (the theologically “in” crowd) roll our eyes? For us older guard, what leaps to mind is the L word (liberal), or from the more recent decade the P word (postmodern), or the latest (and already fading) scapegoat, the E word (emergent). When love is appealed to, we often nod our heads impatiently and respond, “Yes, but . . .”

We are suspicious because love can be an excuse for mushy thinking and diluted theology—a ploy to minimize sin along with God’s wrath and justice.

I know whereof I speak, because in this regard I’ve been among the greatest of sinners. My atheist friends would protest, “You Christians say God is love, but we sinners are not feeling it from the likes of you.” At least these days I avoid tossing out the exhausted cliché, “Yes, God loves sinners, but he hates sin.”

But how else are we to respond, for instance, to a persistent mother of a prodigal daughter who once again corners the first church leader she can find after the worship service and, with pleading whispers, begs for a simple welcoming gesture: “Couldn’t someone seek her out—just invite her to be a part of us? She won’t listen to me.”

We have all seen the awkward hesitancy in the eyes of everyone standing nearby. We’re all thinking the same thing: “Yes, God loves her daughter, but she wouldn’t be a good example for the children; she might lead some of our own into sin.”

(Distracting but important side note: Are we all really thinking the same thing in this situation? In this situation what I am thinking is, “What a great opportunity to help this dear sister work through a challenging family discipleship issue that many of us face–myself included. I want to help her see that God, in his oh-so-customary 1 Timothy 3:1-5 fashion, has graciously permitted this situation so that he might be glorified not through someone more official than her inviting the daughter to church but rather through the mother learning how to be church with her daughter and the rest of her household even in the most challenging family days and years.” I digress, but only slightly.)

Contra Craig, I would contend that most people today, if they believe that God exists, believe also that he is quite a good chap, willing to let bygones be bygones in exchange for our belief in him, and desperately wanting to love on us if we will just permit him to. Accordingly, sin is construed as our effort to look for love in all the wrong places in order to fill the aching emptiness within that only God can fill–understandable but regrettably short-sighted, the kind of thing children do because they lack the big picture that adults have.

It’s a vision of God and sin that’s a hand in glove fit for a consumer society for which the  maximization of our own individual happiness is a goal beyond question or even consideration. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” becomes a kind of commercial slogan, as in: One taste of the Lord and you’ll see that he’s much more satisfying than that pornography you’re currently into!

So while Craig suggests that Christians today always want to wrinkle their noses and add the word “but” to any statement about the love of God, I would contend that Christians actually quite happily embrace the love of God, even as they unwittingly treat it as a product that anybody would be crazy not to want to own. After all, you can even get it in a free sample size if you raise your hand in your seat (hey, everybody’s eyes are closed anyway) or stop by the welcome center in the lobby after the service.

Where Christian discomfort rises, I would further contend, is with the idea of repentance–that repugnant pronouncement that we by nature are in open, stinking, snarling, defiant, constant, insidious, sulfur-breathed rebellion against God and have been since we sucked in our first breath, and that the only chance we’ve got is for God to grab us, slice open our chest cavities, yank apart our ribs, snatch out the pulsating, bleeding, surging, evil-spawning, fire-breathing capital of disobedience within us, hurl it into the smoldering abyss, and replace it with a new heart–the ultimate Jarvik-7–designed by the wizardly wise and mind-bendingly compassionate creator of our species, with insertion made possible by his personal death and resurrection, with post-operative symptoms of loving like he loves because it is his heart, after all.

In this bloody, gutsy scenario, it’s not that God forgives us for our dumb old hearts and promises to love us, stand by us, and bail us out of trouble no matter what dumb thing we do next. It’s that we are in active, intentional, purposeful league against God with the evil that gushes 24/7 through our veins and brains, and that the only adequate picture of what the merciful God is willing to do for us is the plunge into the icy, swirling waters of death and subsequent re-emergence–coughing, gasping, croaking, but joyful–known as baptism.

Now that, I would contend, is what makes Christians uncomfortable.

It certainly made the hearers of John the Baptist and Jesus uncomfortable when they thundered out that one word initiation of the gospel message–Repent!–over and over again. They said it with such steely-eyed intensity and urgency that you’d almost think they were speaking to a people in rebellion. Because they were. And we are, too.

But it turned out for John and Jesus’ hearers that repentance was actually giddily good news without the slightest whiff of bad. It was good news because it turned out there was a way out of the hopeless, disgusting, steaming mess they’d gotten ourselves into–only one totally unexpected way, interestingly: the flesh and blood sacrifice of none other than God himself, a sacrifice he willingly made even before we had come to grips with how fundamentally desperately we needed it.

You see, repentance is only ever bad news if you haven’t yet come to grips with how evil your own heart really is. If you truly know how evil your heart is, you secretly are desperate to escape it, like a battered wife desperate to escape from her slobbering, inebriated, fist-swinging ogre-husband. You desperately want to escape it but you know it will chase you down and slobber its inebriated slobber on you as it pummels you with its fists and makes you promise never to run away again. In such a case, the reality that you can be rescued from that via a bloody battle reminiscent of the Zero Dark 30 battle over Osama bin Laden–there’s only good news in that. All it takes is admitting that you’re an active co-conspirator, not just a sad sack looking for love in all the wrong places.

Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house (Jesus, in Matthew 12:29).

The scandal for Christians, it turns out, is not that God is the big old sloppy labrador of love but rather that he he shows up in camouflage and face paint ready to bust us out of captivity if we’re willing to admit, like Nazi prison guards, our role in aiding and abetting and advancing the work of the unspeakable evil that is his enemy. Christians much prefer to think of the whole thing like the Pepsi Challenge, where they sampled the options, switched brands, and even got free coupons to share with others. Smart shoppers, we.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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