Continued from part 9, on the Great Commission as a directive to conquer
Jesus is, of course, the king of the whole world—but since I am an evangelical, and evangelicalism is a broadly western phenomenon, my focus is western.
I don’t want to end this series on a downer; indeed, my purpose is to encourage evangelicals to reform how we preach the gospel, because the gospel is glorious. But to really drive home the need for this, we have to consider where the gospel of personal moral restoration has led us.
Private, me-centered religion
Since the focus is personal moral restoration—starting with Jesus’ service to us rather than our service to him—the evangelical gospel has naturally produced all kinds of me-centered errors. These started in the church, of course, but because culture is downstream from religion [I am not sure who first made this point, but I do know that Marvin Olasky said as much in the foreword to This is Our Time, which I am afraid is the only part of the book I have actually read: Trevin Wax, This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel (B&H Publishing Group, 2017).] they have certainly not stayed there. I think we can trace plausible connections between the evangelical gospel and many of the cultural-religious phenomena that now beset us. Let me canvass just a few in order to demonstrate the urgency of restoring the cosmological center to our gospel. I’ll start with the bad and move on to the badder:
I have had some people push back on the idea that culture is downstream from religion. This puzzles me. Culture, broadly, is the whole gamut of activities, expressions and institutions of a kingdom. Activities, expressions and institutions always reflect prior ideological commitments. A kingdom in which the predominant commitment of people’s souls is to hedonism produces a culture like Hollywood; a kingdom in which the predominant attitude to woman is pedestalization produces a culture in which even Christians scoff at biblical patriarchy; etc. So to say that culture is downstream from religion is simply to say that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks—and the body acts—and that this happens at a corporate level as well as at a personal one.
Optional church membership
This might seem an odd place to start, but it jumps out to me for various reasons. A Christian who doesn’t see his place in the assembly of God’s people as a place in a dynasty—a family and a kingdom regulated by a hierarchy of authority—will tend to treat his local congregation like a social club. It’s a group of like-minded people who meet together regularly to enjoy their mutual interest. Membership is then a handy way to have one’s say in how the club is run—but it’s hardly necessary for being involved. By the same token, a local congregation that doesn’t see itself as part of organizing and representing God’s authority on earth will fall into exactly the same trap.
Conversely, a Christian who defines his identity in terms of kingdom will naturally ask what the place of the local congregation is in that kingdom—and what his place is in the local congregation. By the same token, a congregation which thinks the same way will naturally liken itself to a household, a microcosm of the greater house of God, and teach believers not to merely join it, but to submit to it (cf. Hebrews 13:17). A local assembly is not a club; it is how Jesus organizes his authority (Matthew 16:18–19), and it is the structure through which he disciples, baptizes, and teaches the nations.
Jonathan Leeman likens a church to an embassy, [ Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012).] but while this is an improvement on the typical model, it still reflects a fundamentally legal understanding of God’s kingdom. This seems endemic to our age, because the concept of the household as the basic unit of society has been all but lost. In the Bible, we are representatives of God because we are sons of God (cf. John 5:19–20), and as sons of God we build up the household of God (cf. Ephesians 2:19; 1 Timothy 3:15). Church membership is therefore not a way to exercise voting rights, nor a method by which a congregation can separate the confessionalists from the non-confessionalists; it is simply how the household of God recognizes and governs its own family members.
This is rampant in less robust evangelicalism, since Jesus is frequently presented as being desperate to save us regardless of what we do—rather than ready to spit us out of his mouth if we don’t work out our salvation with fear and trembling. The downplaying of a changed life is a natural consequence of seeing faith as belief rather than fealty; its object as the atonement rather than our king; its purpose as therapeutic rather than covenantal; its outcome as the placation of God’s judgment rather than God’s judgment of vindication.
The Lordship Salvation controversy
That this was able to ignite in the first place is surely a testament that evangelicals do not see salvation as a benefit of Jesus’ all-encompassing kingship. Worse, we have not even refined our gospel in the fires of this controversy.
On this point, an anecdote: I had a discussion not long ago with a solid, Reformed evangelical preacher of many years. The question came up as to whether Jesus’ lordship is vital to salvation. This preacher mused that, although it surely is, explaining why is not so easy.
But…how can anyone say this if they understand the gospel of the apostles? Jesus’ lordship just is that gospel! If he is not your king, then you ain’t a citizen of his kingdom; and if you ain’t a citizen of his kingdom, then you certainly ain’t gonna inherit it. When I said as much, the preacher looked nonplussed. He knew intuitively that it’s right to say that Jesus is our savior because he is our lord, but he could not put his finger on why. Given the difficulty that evangelicalism has had in dealing with Lordship Salvation, I am certain he cannot be alone.
Moralistic therapeutic deism
This is the term coined by sociologist Christian Smith to describe the religion of the west—especially the religion of millennials. It is a worldview in which God exists; watches over the world; wants us to be nice to each other as we pursue happiness so we can go to heaven when we die; and is there for us when we need him. [ Wikipedia, Moralistic therapeutic deism.] Rather than involving transformative revelation from God, as Collin Hansen puts it, religion has thus become a utility for enhancing a teenager’s life. [ Collin Hansen, Death By Deism in Christianity Today (April 2009).]
Evangelicals have been writing about this for years. Albert Mohler, for example, noted in 2009:
Clearly, millions of our neighbors believe that moralism is our message. Nothing less than the boldest preaching of the Gospel will suffice to correct this impression and to lead sinners to salvation in Christ. [ Albert Mohler, Why Moralism Is Not the Gospel — And Why So Many Christians Think It Is (September 2009).]
It’s as sad as it is ironic that Mohler accurately identifies neither the root of why so many people think our gospel is moralism, nor the correct solution. His suggestion is to replace one moralistic message with another. Is it any surprise that our neighbors think our gospel is about personal moral improvement when that is what we consistently preach? Yes, no doubt they have misunderstand the work of Jesus in it. But they have certainly gotten the hang of the broad strokes. Can there be any serious doubt that the wholesale replacement of the true gospel with moralistic therapeutic deism is not directly connected to the evangelical moralistic gospel? And can there be any serious doubt that continuing to preach that gospel as the solution will do anything except produce more of the same problem?
Cultural relativism and private religion
The natural evolution from easy-believism to moralistic therapeutic deism finds its endpoint in the complete relativism of the modern progressive movement. This includes progressive Christians, and the secular left, but has sadly come to characterize a large swath of evangelicalism as well. [For a representative example, see Toby Sumpter, Keller’s Baal Problem in CrossPolitic (January 2018). The Gospel Coalition also has much to answer for here.]
This is the polar opposite to apostolic Christianity. At the evangelical end, a sharp wedge is inserted between theology and politics, and faithful Christians are hypocritically lambasted by pundits for abdicating the moral high ground in their voting habits. The Christian witness is reduced to virtue-signaling. This in turn enables the progressive and secular extremists. God, if he exists at all, exists to serve and affirm us—we make the rules, we define reality, we take the place of God. Thus: feminism, abortion, identity politics, same-sex mirage, #lovewins, women are men, pets are children, yada yada yada.
However, the key problem to note here is totalitolerance. Because the end result of the evangelical gospel’s lopsidedness is man placing himself over God, the one kind of speech that becomes anathema is exactly the kind we are called to—the kind that places God over man. When God’s assembly fails to disciple the nations unto the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5), the nations in turn ensure that we cannot later reneg. So the heart of the moralistic gospel’s failure is that it ends in a complete reversal of our prophetic place in the world:
Rather than God’s people schooling those still under Satan’s power, and bringing them into submission to Jesus, it is the world schooling us and bringing us into submission to Satan.
Thus we are left with Inverted Christianity. Our faith becomes relegated to private religion—if we’re lucky. I have experienced this Inverted Christianity first-hand; for instance, with the correlation between the moralistic gospel and the confused defense of homosexuality. Since God loves everyone, and Jesus died for everyone, Inverted Christians infer that God accepts everyone. Indeed, since God is love, and sodomy is love, sodomy is godly. The only things that aren’t godly are judgment, offending people with terms like sodomy, and averring that God still has commandments that only children of Satan avoid keeping (1 John 3:10).
A few representative comments from Inverted Christians I’ve spoken to may help drive home the remarkable urgency of the problem: [See D. Bnonn Tennant, This is what we're up against (June 2015) (all emphases and sloppy writing original).]
as Christian’s we know it’s wrong because that’s what the bible says. But God did not grant us the right to judge others that’s for him only. Also we don’t have the right to condemn homosexuals for their sins when we are not perfect ourselves.
god loves all his children unconditionally. Who are we to say what’s evil or not? Marina Martinez [a pro-gay commenter] does not “approve of sin”. Thats pretty disrespectful and your assumptions make you look like a christian extremist. You can quote the bible all you want, bur at the end of the day, all you are is a sinner. Like all of us. God gave us free will. Leave those people to it. Its not YOUR PLACE to tell people what they can or can’t do, or how they live their lives.
I’m a very christian person. Being a Christian does not mean that you cannot rejoice in the happiness of others. On Sunday, our pastor made sure that the first thing he said in church was, “Let us rejoice over the acceptance of our neighbors! Love Wins!” Jesus condemned no one. In fact, he opted to spend his time with those who felt like they were outcasts. It is not our job to judge anyone. It is our job to recognize love where it shows itself. It is our job to be happy for those who can finally be free. Leave the judgment up to God, and love everyone around you. “Be like Jesus” does not mean that we can pretend to have the same power that he does. “Be like Jesus simply means to spread love, happiness, and acceptance to those around you.
In the same vein, one commenter here shared his discovery that the handbook for MOPS, an international church outreach program, explicitly directs its leaders to “keep Christian talk to a minimum” for fear of offending the very mothers they’re trying to share Christianity with. [See https://bnonn.com/baptism-as-a-pledge-of-allegiance/#comment-38500.]
The problem of God’s kingdom reversing its role with the nations isn’t new, and I don’t think all the blame can be laid at the feet of a moralistic gospel. For instance, God’s people in Germany failed monstrously on this point in the early 1930s—and that had a lot to do with Hitler cunningly turning their Two Kingdoms theology against them. [While I am less opposed to 2K theology than Joel McDurmon, his take on its role in the church’s capitulation to Nazism is interesting: Joel McDurmon, Horton’s inglorious “two kingdoms” theology in The American Vision (January 2013).] But I don’t think he would have been able to do that if German Christians had stuck to General Order 1 (Matthew 28:18–20) and maintained a clear-eyed view of their role as disciplers of their nation on behalf of Jesus, the king over Hitler.
Perhaps another way of summarizing what’s going on here is that a purely moralistic gospel teaches us not to fear God. Because it is couched in terms of God loving us, and Jesus dying for us, it causes complacency. Yes, in robust presentations, repentance is preached, hell is preached, fleeing the wrath to come is preached. But within the assembly, once we accept the gospel, we are inclined to stop fearing God. I am not talking about abject, craven terror à la medieval Catholicism. I am talking about the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). As Adam Young reputedly put it,
If you stop fearing the Lord, you will stop fearing sin. And when that happens, everything you deem unthinkable suddenly becomes tolerable, passable, admirable, moral, legal, and even applaudable.
When you stop fearing the Lord, the only thing that becomes unthinkable is upsetting man. Then cowardice replaces boldness, and niceness inevitably replaces love. Inverted Christians who fear man preach God’s wuv, rather than God’s judgement. The Great Commission transmogrifies into showing how nice Christianity makes people, in the hope that others will want to join the club. Witnessing becomes twisted from testifying about their king, to testifying about how accepting they are—just as accepting as the world.
And when Christians have finally perfected fitting into the world, so the world will accept Christianity, the world asks why it needs Christianity, and the Christians are left speechless.
Thus the gospel of personal moral restoration rots on the vine.
Inverted Christians are of utterly no use in carrying out the Great Commission. [For a good example, see Mike S. Adams, Onward Christian Pansies in Townhall (July 2016).] Indeed, they are the opposite of useful, because the only time their spines work is when they are tearing down the loving Christians—condemning them as extremists who give Jesus a bad name through preaching his coming judgment and associating him with intolerance and bigotry.
The rot eats through God’s kingdom until it is ineffective against Satan’s. Culture is downstream from religion.
The cosmological gospel confronts these errors
Would the gospel of Jesus’ kingship overturn all these errors in an instant? Even if it were believed it would not fix every problem in evangelicalism overnight. But it would certainly move us in the right direction. Neither would it be immune from distortion and error itself—for instance, I can imagine prosperity teachers and the signs-and-wonders brigade happily incorporating kingdom theology into their abominations. But at least we would be starting from the right foundation in correcting them. At the risk of laboring the point, I’m confident that you can see from the examples I’ve given that preaching the cosmological gospel directly confronts the seeping errors of evangelicalism—and gives backbone to the Christian witness in the culture at large.
I don’t mean to suggest that I have discovered something that the entire evangelical world has overlooked. Most of what I have said in this series I learned from others, and although I have not seen the elements pieced together in quite this way before, the broad strokes are being painted elsewhere. [One example with respect to recovering cosmic kingship—though he doesn't use that exact term—is Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Baker Academic, 2017). See also Scot McKnight's King Jesus Gospel.] Nor do I suppose that I have articulated the Bible’s kingdom theology with complete balance or accuracy or comprehensiveness. I am not a full-time theologian, and my perspective and study is limited.
Nevertheless, this understanding of the kingdom of God is not widely disseminated in evangelicalism—and I am convinced that it needs to be. Although each point taken individually could be considered a relatively unimportant item of trivia, collectively they build a biblical theology that matters. The very message and power of the gospel rests upon it. As I have argued, the failure of the modern church in the west seems straightforwardly connected to the moralistic gospel it preaches. If we want to bring about the obedience of faith in our own nations, we must restore the cosmological center to the gospel. We must preach Jesus as king.