Gospel Substitutes Part 2: Activism
(Eds. Note: This is the second part in our series on "Gospel Substitutes." You can read Part 1, which focused on Formalism, here. The thoughts below and in subsequent posts in this series have been heavily influenced by Dr. Tim Lane’s lecture on Counseling in the Local Church).
Sheree Phillips began our series on Gospel Substitutes on Tuesday by looking at the issue of Formalism, which she described as an attitude that sees regular attendance, acts of service, and giving as a sufficient substitute for a personal relationship with God. It was a challenging and convicting beginning to our series, especially for someone (like me) who has always been part of serving teams at church (in my case, the worship team and set-up/tear-down) and has sometimes functionally assumed that my service was a reflection of my character. Anyone who knew me in high school also knew that was not always the case.
Today, I want to address the second issue in our series, i.e. the issue of Activism. By that I simply mean that sometimes we are tempted to substitute the core message of the Gospel with participation in Christian causes. Before I do, though, I want to address a potential misinterpretation of the series more generally.
My brother Joey is fond of saying that a particular argument or thought “applies where it applies.” I’m not sure where he got the phrase from, but I’ve often had to keep it in mind as I read various books and blogs, and even Scripture. In the context of this series, I think it’s important to note what we are not saying. Most of the issues we’ll be addressing are, by themselves, excellent and aspirational things, and should not be abandoned. Sheree’s post, for instance, should not be taken to mean that if we think too much about regularly serving at church, or even if it has become a “gospel substitute,” the proper solution is to stop serving or giving. Far from it! Our acts of service, our communal participation with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s day, is, amongst other things, an obedient response to the Gospel. The problem is not that we serve; the problem is that we think acts of service, attendance, and actions that conform to the expectations of our particular Christian subculture is a sufficient substitute for our personal pursuit of and relationship with Jesus. Her post was not aimed at those struggling to find motivation to go to church on Sunday’s or to become actively involved therein; it was aimed at those who measure their relationship with God by whether they are the servant of all.
Similarly, I would be devastated if the reaction to the words I am going to write would be for someone to disengage from the Christian causes in which they are involved. The sociological implications of the Gospel require active participation in issues of social justice by those who have been ransomed by the blood of Christ. If by our actions we are not reflecting the preeminence of Christ over all issues and the power of the cross over all of humanity, we are denying the power and ignoring the heart of the Gospel.
ACTIVISM IS NOT THE GOSPEL
John Newton famously said that he only knew two things for sure: “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.” Paul professed to know and preach only “Christ and him crucified.” Both get at the same concept, which is that part of the beauty of the Gospel is its simplicity. As Tim Keller said, the good news of the Gospel is a simple plot line. “1) God created the world, 2) the world fell into sin and decay, 3) God sent His Son to redeem the world and create a new humanity, and 4) eventually He will renew the world and make all things new.”
The danger in Activism becoming a substitute for the Gospel is when we divorce our Christian causes from that plot line. We often can use ostensibly Christian language while focusing solely on the fourth act without setting the proper foundation and purpose that the first three acts entails. That, I think, was Paul’s point. By saying that he only preached “Christ and him crucified,” Paul was not saying that he only preached the physical act of Calvary. He was saying that in everything he preached, he maintained the centrality of the cross. If he preached about creation, for example, it was in the context of presuppositionalism; God created us (point 1) with a knowledge of God, which we suppress (point 2) which necessitates redemption for our sin of suppressing our inherent, created knowledge of God (point 3) for the purpose of the enactment of point 4.
The causes we attach ourselves to are implications of the Gospel, but they are not the Gospel. They become substitutes for the Gospel when they are not contextualized by the Gospel. I have to remind myself of this truth all the time. One of the things I care about passionately is the issue of race relations and racial reconciliation. My undergrad studies focused on Reconstruction and Jim Crow. My thesis law school paper analyzed the reality and effect of inequitable school funding, where predominantly African-American and Latino schools have significantly less funding than predominantly white schools. My parents adopted an African-American and Native American girl who became my baby sister. Many things in my life have synthesized with what I believe is a God-given passion for an important topic. All of that makes it all the more important that I remind myself that while the implications of the Gospel have so, so, so much to say about race, racism and racial reconciliation, those issues are not themselves the Gospel. If I write about and talk about those issues merely as social realities with social, secularists solutions, and not as the result of the sin and decay of the world for which Christ has provided a solution and will eventually eradicate when He makes all things new, I’m doing something wrong.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PRIORITY AND PRIMACY
Prioritization is always important, but in the context of Activism, primacy is probably a more important word. Sometimes the priority is not the specific message that we are sinners in need of a savior, a Savior who already came and died to redeem us from our sins. Sometimes, the priority is the cause. If we see someone getting beaten in the streets, our priority is not to come behind the muggers and yell to the victim, “You need to be saved!!..No, no, not from being kicked in the face, you need to be saved FROM YOUR SINS!” If a pair of parents tell us they are on the way to an abortion clinic, our response should probably have more to do with the baby than their souls. If we see a minority being discriminated against, our immediate response probably should not be to remind them that God’s mercy is indiscriminate. If we see an orphan starving on the street, the best plan probably doesn’t involved walking up to him and telling him about the all the great food that is offered to him in Heaven. The Samaritan was good and it was not because he stopped on the road, went to the bleeding victim and told him about Jesus.
But regardless of proper prioritization, the Gospel should always retain primacy. By that I mean that regardless of our specific words in specific situations, our lives are characterized by the explication and application of the good news of the Gospel. The danger of Gospel substitution becomes when Activism replaces its primacy. How do we know if the primacy of the Gospel has been replaced? Here are a couple (but not exhaustive) questions we could ask ourselves:
Are we more passionate when talking about abortion/racial reconciliation/sex trafficking/immigration than we are when talking about the words of Scripture?
Do we find it easy to go down and feed the poor, but difficult to tell our unsaved friends about Jesus?
Are we more focused on political improvements than we are on kingdom living?
Do we often remind ourselves about what James said about “true religion” and gloss over the amount of times Jesus said “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”?
Do we love to mention how much Jesus talked about money and conveniently ignore how much He talked about Hell?
If someone we did not know looked at our Facebook posts from the last three months, what would they identify as the thing we care about the most?
EVERYTHING IN ITS PROPER PLACE
I do not mean to imply that certain answers to the questions I mentioned have a direct correlation to whether the primacy of the Gospel has been replaced in our lives. It’s perfectly possible that Facebook is not the proper place to be evangelizing or distilling pithy recaps of the Gospel message, and that it is the proper place to raise awareness about the prevalence of sex trafficking and rape culture in our society. It’s plausible that we are consistently going to homeless shelters but inconsistently engaging in personal evangelism not because we have misplaced the primacy of the Gospel, but because we are shy or simply do not know very many non-Christians (or because our job/calling includes homeless shelters).
But I think those questions (and other, better questions I cannot think of) are a good place to start. Our causes are important. Christ is preeminent, and the implications of the Gospel are powerful and vast. But let’s not let them become replacements for the core message of the Gospel. If we ignore Activism, we might be relatively bad sheep. But if we substitute Activism for the Gospel, we have become wolves. If we attach ourselves to activist notions of social justice divorced from the Gospel, there is a danger that we are simply helping others live more comfortable lives on their way to destruction. Our goal should be tell others of the existence of the narrow road, not to make the wide road a little smoother and less rocky.
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