Gospel: Souls and stomachs? & ‘Both/and’ but not always!
What’s all that about? If you are like me – a bit of a bridge – a peacemaker – you mostly want people to get along. Different people with different perspectives and sometimes people with different emphasis within the same perspective being helped to get along, understand and appreciate each other. All so they can reach a consenus ad idem (I am happily a failed accountant – took a bit of latin – failed it – more grounds for being a humble donkey). A consensus ad idem is a meeting of the minds. Potentially a beautiful thing. One of the most powerful tools in the peacemaking business is the highly effective and arresting – it’s not your way or his way! – it’s your way and his way – it’s both/and not either/or. This can be a light bulb moment for people. It can help them to see the other person’s side – its validity in part and its interplay with their side bringing about a restorative effect on battling parties.
As a peacemaker I have tasted the sweetness of this line and it’s powerful effect – but it can have an ego inflating effect also (sorry humble donkey). Partly due to such a consequence, it can also lead one to misuse it – to misunderstand when it has appropriate application and even to be a bit careless about its use. You can even end up using it to superficially resolve particular tensions or differences which do not warrant or allow resolution. In doing this we can end up flattening terrain that should be or has to be mountainous just because we have at our disposal some kind of mountain flattening machine which makes us feel a liitle bit high. Some things do not need resolving into one. To do so could dishonour and contort each thing. If that’s the principle – what the application?
We often see this melting, merging of two into one when applied to the life of the Christian. Many christians can emphasise one thing at the expense of another – when they are unwise to do so. For example, sometimes trust in God’s overall plan and prayer about a specific situation are pitched against one another. But it’s not trust in God’s sovereignty (God’s freedom in choosing, doing, being) at the expense of prayerfully seeking God’s help in a situation. It’s both/and. It’s trust and prayer. You see how that works. Both/and. It’s also like someone saying belief in Jesus is the only essential for salvation (a safe, beautiful eternal life with God) and someone else saying repentance (sorrow for dishonoring God through sin and turning life toward God) is the only thing necessary for salvation. Again another opportunity to resolve this either/or situation is presented. It is in fact both/and – repentance and belief – After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:14-15).
So both/and is often very useful, wise and necessary, particularly when we have pitched two compatible, complementary or sequential things against each other. Notice however, that in being both/and – we have not said the two things are the same thing. As if they were interchangeable because the differences are so minute. This is because they are not the same, not interchangeable. Their distinctness is important and their relationship to one another is important. They are connected but not carbon copies.
Both/and is a necessary piece of wisdom for peacemakers when two sides of the same coin have been pitched against each other as if they were actually sides of different coins. They are connected but not carbon copies. Both/and statements seek to highlight the connection and difference when wise to do so – when being pitched, in an inapproriate way, against each other. So in certain contexts both/and type understanding is necessary and wise but in other contexts it is wrongheaded, confused, confusing and unhelpful. Such a context would include where the two connected things are being forced to merge into one thing in the sense that distinction is ignored or downplayed and people now speak of either thing to mean the exact same thing. If clarity and restoration are some of the benefits to the correct and wise use of both/and, what are some of the consequences of getting this wrong?
A long time ago in a land far away (New Zealand) I was attending a conference. There I encountered a kind of ‘both/and’ mis-use. This misuse is sadly widespread across the church and I would like to comment on it. At the conference, we were in conversations about four things. 1) the Gospel 2) the whole gospel 3) the social gospel and 4) the call to love of neighbour as self. This call to love of neighbour as self is typically embodied in a life of compassion & service for the needy around us.
The truth is, I only believe in the first and last of these four things. Numbers 1 and 4. The Gospel (1) and the call to the love of neighbour as self (4). The middle two (whole and social gospel) don’t really exist. They are not biblical (i.e. cannot find substance as a concept, commandment or construct within the Bible as gospel). They are phantoms or ghostly vehicles designed to get us from somewhere to somewhere. They are essentially constructs devised by well intentioned and in so many ways better men and women than me. These good people seek to awaken, challenge and drive the church into nurturing people physically (through bread and care) as well as spiritually (with salvation through Christ’s gospel). So the desire to get us from somewhere to somewhere is a good and necessary one. But unfortunately the vehicle that has been constructed involves a massive distortion of something essential and paramount with huge negative consequences.
Because I don’t know who is reading this post (all welcome), I would like to try and make the most important bits (the life changing and life saving bits) understandable to all. So I will explain what I mean by key terms a bit more. That’s why this post is littered with bracketed comments. I am particularly going to use this section to explain what I mean by salvation and related matters. Salvation in short means enemies of God getting to have peace and friendship with God. Amazing but how?
- God is holy and rightly judges our abundant and evident sin
- God finds us guilty and sentences us to ongoing judgement in this life and the next.
- But God makes an extraordinary move toward us in kindness while not changing his expectations, his holiness or his justice
- This extraordinary move is not a “let’s just get along and not worry about the dishonouring and the ignoring of me, the passive and active rebellion against me” but is a “let me deal with and destroy this thing, let me clear and cleanse your decks. I will judge you as I should but I will stand in for you and receive that judgement.”
- God provides this way for there to be peace – through Christ on the cross
- God through the Gospel invites all to come into this peace
- The Gospel tells of God’s rescue and restorative plan & work through Christ and the cross, commanding repentance toward him and belief in it.
- See his holiness judging and punishing; see his mercy substituting and receiving the blows of judgement and punishment.
- The season when you can embrace this gospel is every moment until your last but not beyond. Beyond your last moment you face God as if he never made the extraordinary move of mercy and substitution.
The christian person is the person who has faced up to the reality of their own sin and their hopelessness before the holy God. Faced up, accepted it, know it, doesn’t doubt it, feels the weight of it and now loves the second bit – the being rescued and having peace declared and provided by God. By the way one should only really be called Christian after being brought low and raised high in this way. The term Christian in its proper sense is a description of one who has repented (of sins and rebellion) and believed (in Christ’s substitutionary life and death on the cross). The term Christian is not actually an ethnic or social grouping. A ‘Christian’ is one whom God has brought low with a heavy realisation and lifted into a waking up. Jesus calls it being born again (again not an ethnic social grouping).
John 3:1 – 8 (electronically sourced from Bible Gateway http://www.biblegateway.com/)
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born again.’ 8 The wind[e] blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
In this waking up, the christian has been raised high with unexpected, undeserved, abundant access to the love and friendship of the Triune God. That’s what needs to happen for a person to appropriately wear the name Christian. So the christian is the person brought low and raised high by God. Most secular people object to the first bit of this – being brought low stinks and is ridiculous. They don’t see it, can’t understand it, therefore can’t appreciate it. For them the second bit – the lifting up, the enjoyment of God’s love and friendship now and forever – is nothing but sheer fantasy – a silly love-fest, a croc. I certainly had a couple of those years myself. They were my intellectual commitments for that season. And then I was brought low. Painfully. Rightly. Thankfully.
Now let me refocus on those well intentioned people who talk of the phantoms – social gospel and whole gospel. For them the Gospel has expanded to become a kind of both/and – care for the stomach and care for the soul. They saw that some christians highly valued Gospel sharing (sharing the story of Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice for sinners, which generated repentance and faith in some hearers – Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile). They highly valued the life saving gospel but often neglected stomach filling.
Therefore, it seems to me, the well intentioned people used the specific label of ‘Gospel’ with its expanded and infused meaning to invoke many (especially the soul savers) to feed the hungry and preach Christ crucified for sinners. Not souls or stomachs. But souls and stomachs. Both/and. Two different things. Do both. Both need doing. Do them. A kind of trojan noun emerged from them with bells on. Gospel with its new additives became the whole gospel. It went something like this – those guys over there love gospel sharing but neglect stomach filling. Let’s persuade them that Gospel sharing is incomplete without stomach filling (or similar beautiful act). That shouldn’t be hard because they love Jesus (the centre of the Gospel) and he loves stomach filling and commands love of neighbour as self. No brainer. More stomachs filled. God honoured. Win win?
This expanded view of the gospel has become embodied in the concept of Total Gospel or Whole Gospel – the social gospel with the salvation gospel. Each one a part – a half maybe. You can maybe see what motivated them but also how a lack of precision has lead to a distortion. This distorted view is that the gospel is incomplete unless both food and message are offered. But this is a classic misuse of both/and at best and a false gospel at worst. And there is an even greater distortion to focus on later – where stomach filling displaces the so called salvation gospel as the Gospel.
But for now let’s do some compare and contrast work.
You see, the Great Commission – preach the Gospel
Mark 16:15 He (Jesus) said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”
is not the same as the Great Commandment – love your neighbour as self
Mark 12:29-31 The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] There is no commandment greater than these.”
True, the christian is not called to do one only – he is called into a life of both. But the Gospel is not the great commission call plus the great commandment call. The Gospel is the great commission call – tell the message of the person and work of Christ to people who need to hear it and be embrace by it. That’s it. This commission call effects one thing (the soul) and the commandment call effects another (the stomach). If you want someone to trust the saviour – preach the Gospel – bread won’t do it (Romans 1:16-17). And if you want to fill someone’s belly – feed them. Don’t preach the good news that Christ rescues sinners through his cross “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Gospel sharing and feeding are different things. They bring about different things. And yes, they should both be found in the life of all Christian believers. The person who is born anew through the gospel message and life of Jesus will begin to bear the fruits of the gospel – stomach feeding among them. Are they connected? Can be, should be. Interchangeable? Never.
Is the Christian called to preach or feed? It’s both/and silly – haven’t you been listening! Preach Gospel and feed stomachs.
Is the Gospel preaching and feeding stomachs? No! It’s proclaiming the good news of Christ’s death for sinners to other sinners. It’s the preaching, sharing, announcing thing only.
So no feeding of stomachs then? You still are mixing things up – Gospel saves! Food fills! The one who saves – the Jesus of the gospel – saves through the gospel. That’s why christians need to tell it. The one who saves – the Jesus of the gospel – commands his followers – his saved ones to fill stomachs with food as one way to demonstrate his love for stomach owners and as an evidence of our transformed life by, through and for Jesus.
So, Christians, let’s respond to Christ’s call to do both. We may do them at the same time – feeding to keep alive while announcing the good news to the already spiritually dead. Or we may do them separately. But we shouldn’t think while we are doing one that we are achieving the other. We are not.
And here’s an interesting nuance to this wrong headed interchangeability. We certainly know that we are not feeding the stomach of the hungry when we are telling them the gospel story. We know this actually quite well. We even say things like “hey dude (bud, mate, you), that guy is hungry – meet that need – don’t preach!” We do hear this a lot in church and I’m glad of it. That shows that we do get the category distinction to some degree – gospel and feeding are different to some extent but our understanding runs in one direction only. When it comes to gospel telling we seem to forget the distinction runs two ways. The worst distortion occurs when we begin to think – “through feeding I am sharing the gospel”. No you are not. When you feed – you feed and in this feeding you share a benefit, result, fruit of the gospel’s work within your life. This forgetting of the two way distinction, which causes so much confusion is highly problematic because the soul saving gospel gets shared less and less by the church, by christians.
That’s because in many ways the church really doesn’t want to share the gospel anymore. Is this because of memory lapse? Hardly. You don’t not want to do something if you have forgotten it. It doesn’t come across your radar at all. You have forgotten it. No, the church has not forgotten to share the gospel.
Has the church changed its mind on the gospel – its meaning, its need and its benefits? In a way – yes. This is the steady journey into liberalism. The new meaning (200 years old in fact) is that of trajedy, inspiration and general approximation. All things should be understood in their most general of terms – expand all sayings of Jesus to maximise inclusiveness where it suits, minimise exclusiveness where it suits, ignore context, trajectory and events. “What a trajedy that that nice young man – part wise man, part revolutionary – ended up dead. But how he endured it – what an inspiration! “Be inspired. Take heed. Take hope. But don’t take any of it too seriously. Don’t cramp your style or anyones else’ – feed stomachs – be ethical – that’s what counts”.
The church has not forgotten nor has it changed its mind about gospel meaning, need and benefits. It’s worse than that. It has become embarrassed and dislocated. The church is embarrassed about all this talk of sin, judgement and holiness. I have been very conscious of these words throughout this post and found myself a little embarrassed about them at times. Why is this? This is because I and the church have become somewhat embarrassed about our God. He is so last century and pre 1950s if we are being honest. We have demoted and gagged him. The wider culture has had a powerful influence and we have succumbed. We reshape almost everything according to the needs of the culture. God talk is not cool. Probably never was and certainly never will be. I was never cool (not cool) and then I became a christian (double not cool).
I say God talk is not cool but that is not entirely true. There is still an exception to that rule. If you are a christian, there is still one place where culture will see your God talk & acts and think – “cool!” And you will actually feel cool also. And it is cool. What is this exceptional area? You guessed it – it’s stomach feeding. The wider culture still respects anyone who feeds the hungry and so they should. In a post christian age – the church desires respect. I can understand that. The church has been at times unwise, ungracious, unhealthy – it can claim more than its fair share of the ‘uns’. It sits like an embarrassing old aunt with quirky, antiquated and ugly views of the world at Christmas dinner (the irony of it) with all the young, cool ideological forces reshaping the world without even a hint of their own ‘uns’.
So we are embarrassed about and by God. But that is because we no longer really know him. We have lost sight of the story of God in his Triune community of love, in creation and then commissioning, in relating and then judging, in casting out and then coming close, in promising and then providing, in guiding and then revealing, in coming and then being, in living and then dying, in rising and then sending, in coming and then drawing, in gathering and then adopting, in glorying in himself through mercy and judgement. And there it is – that judgement note again. Spoiling the song. Church! please let us repent of trying to improve the song – improve God. And please let us stop trying to improve the Gospel – so that it saves the unrepentant, so that it can have an “insert self or other great person into the Saviour role” feature.
The Gospel with all its saving angles is what it is. Love it or loathe it. Let’s not change it (as if we really could). Certainly let’s not talk about changing it without being honest and saying that we’re wanting to change it. I admire liberal christians who are honest about this. I despair of evangelical christians who are now in fact liberals but won’t repent or won’t leave. Staying, they are determined to reshape evangelical christianity into liberalism. Evangelicals are the tribe of christians who have been maked by their great prizing of gospel transformation in their own lives and therefore have historically shared it promiscuously. The reshapers don’t want any of that embarrassing gospel but perversely for a number of complex reasons want to avoid having to board the train to Liberalism Central or having to call their website designers to change their allegiance from evangelical to liberal. Let’s us not be those reshapers – implicitly or explicitly. So, more than anything, let us reject embarrassment and dislocation from God. Let us embrace delight and go home to God. Let us feed stomachs so that they may be filled and let us share the Gospel so that enemies of God may come under his peace.