POP GOES THE GOSPEL
What Are We Saved From?
In Part II of “Pop Goes The Gospel”, I described the pop gospel’s slippery-tongued lie that we are all “awesome” (of great worth); a blatant appeal to our vanity in direct contradiction to the Bible’s condemnation of us, in our natural state, as sinners. A second, equally disturbing lie follows on from this; a sugar-coated embellishment of the gospel that dilutes its power to save, and which has wormed its way into the pulpits of many churches today. It concerns the question, “What does Jesus save us from?” (please excuse my relaxed grammar in concluding a sentence with a preposition).
The Bible’s answer to this question is that Jesus removes the guilt of our sin by taking it upon himself, thereby saving us from condemnation, from the wrath of God’s judgment and, ultimately, from consignment to eternal hell. It paints a bleak picture of our true natures and our eternal prospects. The purveyors of the pop gospel, however, have largely ditched the terminology of “sin”, “guilt”, “judgment”, “wrath” and “hell”. Apparently, these terms are not easily marketable to a modern audience. They don’t sell well. Being told that you’re an abject sinner heading for hell is a major turn off to a generation who have been breastfed the lie that they are “awesome” and have unlimited potential. The bad news of the gospel is offensive; it offends our pride and vanity, because it tells us that we are a long way short of being as good as we think we are.
For example, Robert Schuller wrote, “I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and hence counterproductive to the evangelistic enterprise than the unchristian, uncouth strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.”[i]
Consequently, the pop gospel has developed a softer, less offensive set of concepts. Jesus is presented as the one who can heal my broken heart, remove my shame, restore my broken relationships and wipe away my past mistakes and failures. These concepts are drawn from the pop psychology movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s which championed self-esteem and self-actualisation, and they effectively make “me” the centre of the gospel. This kind of language pervades not only the pulpit in many churches, but also the lyrics of many worship songs. The effect of this diluted language is to significantly downplay the objective reality of my guilt as a sinner and portray me as a helpless, wounded victim in need of healing.
Let us examine some of this terminology to evaluate whether it is worthy of inclusion in the gospel.
“Mistakes and Failures”
Calling my rebellion against God’s commandments mistakes and failures, instead of sin, diminishes both the seriousness of sin and our sense of personal culpability. “Mistakes” infers a sense of, “oops-a-daisy, I didn’t really mean that, it was an honest mistake”, whereas much of our sin is blatant, willful, defiant and downright evil. Similarly, “failures” infers, “I tried my best, but I didn’t quite do as well as I hoped”, whereas sin, at its heart, is turning our backs on God and not even trying to please him at all. Let us be clear about this, we haven’t just made a few careless mistakes and failures – we have sinned against Almighty God in thought, word and action, often knowingly, willfully and deliberately. We (humanity) have lied, cheated, stolen, murdered, committed adultery, lusted, gossiped, slandered, envied, hated, held grudges, lived selfishly, not loved our neighbour, and not loved God with all our heart, mind soul and strength. To call this anything other than sin dilutes the gospel by diminishing our culpability.
Referring to Jesus as removing our shame is psychobabble nonsense! We need Jesus to remove our guilt, not our shame. Guilt refers to the objective verdict pronounced upon us by God because of the overwhelming weight of our sin. We have been found guilty in his courtroom and we are awaiting his wrathful sentence (until and unless we respond to Christ in faith and repentance). Shame, on the other hand, is an internal, subjective feeling that may or may not be accurate (I can be guilty and feel no shame, or innocent and still feel ashamed). We don’t need our shame removed! We need the cause of our shame to be dealt with – our objective guilt! If anything, people need to feel more shame for their sins so that they might more clearly perceive their guilt before God and turn in repentance and faith to the Saviour. Portraying Jesus as the one who merely removes our shame, presents him as the benign counselor who helps us deal with our troubled emotions and feel better about ourselves. It is a particularly self-focused, superficial spin on the gospel – which is precisely what the pop gospel is.
The true gospel is much more profound: Jesus is the gracious Lord and Judge who offers death row criminals a free pardon. This, of course, is not a flattering picture of humanity, but it is precisely what we are. And what we desperately need, as we await execution, is not some smooth-tongued psychologist to visit us in our cell and help us deal with our shame, but someone to grant us a free pardon, open the cell door and set us free!
“Heals My Broken Heart”
Presenting Jesus as the one who heals my broken heart is another example of the self-focused superficiality of the pop gospel. I cannot find a single reference in the Bible promising that Jesus will heal my broken heart! There are several references promising that when a person becomes a Christian he or she “is a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). We are also promised that God will give us “a new heart” (Ezek 36:26). These kinds of statements, however, are describing dual aspects of our new spiritual reality – the change from being an enemy of God to now being reconciled with him, and the change from being led by our sinful nature to now being led by God’s Spirit. Neither of these new realities, however, involve having our past hurts miraculously resolved and healed. Instead, the scriptures command us to heal ourselves of past hurts by forgiving those who hurt us! Paul also speaks of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal…” (Phil 3:13), indicating God’s desire that we focus on our present and ongoing service for him, rather than introspective wallowing in the past. Furthermore, the picture of having my poor broken heart healed portrays me as the innocent, helpless victim who has been unfairly treated by this horrible world. This kind of imagery ignores any sense of personal culpability for the mess of my life and further perpetuates the self-focused, superficial, emotive wallowing that is central to the pop gospel.
Healing of Broken Relationships
Similarly, there is no promise in the Bible that Jesus will miraculously heal my broken relationships. Instead, we are given very clear and practical commands concerning how to forgive and live in love towards others. It is our job to restore and maintain positive relationships with others, not God’s; we cannot passively abdicate this responsibility. This is not to deny the fact that prayer, and God’s intervention, is sometimes required to smooth the troubled waters of a damaged friendship, along with the wisdom and guidance of His Spirit to know the best way to proceed. To suggest, however, that a primary purpose of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross was to restore broken human relationships completely ignores the life and death crisis mankind faced and makes a mockery of the cross.
What took Jesus to Calvary was not the need to have our shame removed or our broken hearts mended or our relationships restored. If that was all that was needed, Jesus didn’t really need to die on the cross! We could have simply booked an appointment with a counselor.
No, it was something far more serious that took Jesus to the cross. It was our evil, our sin; the weight of our crushing guilt and its eternal consequences. That is why God took such drastic action as to sacrifice his Son for us; to punish him in our place so that we could have our guilt wiped away.
The pop gospel is an insult to the cross. In attempting to market the gospel in more appealing language it has watered down the message into a kind of vacuous, self-absorbed introspection and rendered Christ as the benign counsellor of our hearts. In seeking to make the gospel inoffensive, the purveyors of this modern message have managed to render it impotent. For, unless people are taught the true depth and seriousness of their disease, they will never understand or appreciate the incredible nature of its cure.
[i] Robert Schuller “Dr. Schuller Comments,” (letter to the editor), Christianity Today, October 5, 1984, pp. 12-13