I’ve been thinking for a while about modern western evangelical christianity. Not what some people may see as the worst of this belief system – televangelists, conservative politics and a focus on sexual ethics – but the mainstream.
My initial christian experience was in this culture and belief, and while I have moved on in many ways, I still share many of its values. But it’s starting to look way too comfortable to me.
Let me explain.
Modern western evangelical christianity
Evangelical Protestant christianity has a fairly simple and well-defined gospel, which can be summarised this way:
- Everyone is a sinner deserving God’s anger and judgment and in need of forgiveness, but Jesus’ atoning death turns away God’s anger against your sin.
- There’s nothing you can do to deserve God’s forgiveness, there’s nothing you need to do to receive it, you just have to receive it as a free gift.
- So confess your sin to God, believe in Jesus and simply trust that God will save you.
- Now you are saved, you have four main tasks: (i) avoid sin, especially sexual sin, (ii) maintain your faith through church attendance, daily prayer and Bible study, (iii) support the church financially, and (iv) help other people to receive the same salvation.
- There is no need to sweat, heaven is guaranteed for you, because of God’s grace.
I believe there’s a lot of truth in that summary (though I’d express those truths differently), but I think some of it is misleading and it leaves out a bit.
What about loving our neighbour?
Of course it is good to love our neighbour and offer help to those in need, especially as it may provide an opportunity for you to share the gospel with them.
But, according to this form of christianity, we should be wary of giving too much time to this. What good is it if someone is fed and given material comfort, and ends up in hell? No, our main task is preaching the gospel, and we shouldn’t be distracted by a social gospel.
This is a bit of a caricature of a position that is certain not held by all evangelical christians, but I have heard all these statements made quite seriously.
And thinking this way seems too often to leave christians sitting in their western privilege and wealth with their ticket to heaven firmly in their hand, and doing very little to care for those around them.
What did Jesus say?
The classic evangelical gospel is based mostly on the New Testament letters of Paul. It is interesting to see sayings of Jesus that don’t quite fit the picture:
Our salvation depends on what we do and don’t do
In his parable in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus links our future eternal “inheritance” to whether we took the trouble to help those in need, or not.
We can’t just sit back with our ticket to heaven
Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23
Jesus values actions more than words
In a small and often unnoticed parable in Matthew 21:28-31, Jesus contrasts the behaviour of two sons, one who says he will obey his father’s wishes, but doesn’t, and the other who says he won’t, but does. It is clear that Jesus values obedience over words.
Faith and good deeds must go together
Jesus’ brother James asks (James 2:14-26) “if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” He concludes that “faith without deeds is dead.”
Taking Jesus seriously
Did Jesus really mean what he said? Dare we explain his words away or ignore them?
We may be worried that this is salvation by works, but I don’t think so. Whatever else is true, it is by God’s grace that we are saved.
But Jesus made it clear that he doesn’t want to us to sit comfortably with our ticket to heaven in hand. He expects us to be acting on our prayer for his will to be done on earth as in heaven. And if caring for others isn’t an important part of our response to him, that so-called “faith” is worthless.
So salvation by grace through faith can too easily become a doctrine that allows us to disregard the very clear and urgent teachings of Jesus about expending our lives doing good and serving those in need.
Is christianity an easy religion that allows you and I to be comfortable?
Or are we servants doing our duty (Luke 17:10), expressing the kingdom of God on earth through service, as he asked us to do?
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