The General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was recently held in Nashville, Tennessee. The theme of this year’s biennial denominational convention was “Tell It!” The critical question this theme posed for me was “Tell What?” Sitting in the General Assembly hotel on Monday morning of Assembly week I happen to find myself reading these words written by the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) from his book A Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen –
Without a doubt, at the center of the New Testament there stands the Cross, which receives its interpretation from the Resurrection. The Passion narratives are the first pieces of the Gospels that were composed as a unity. In his preaching at Corinth, Paul initially wants to know nothing but the Cross, which “destroys the wisdom of the wise and wrecks the understanding of those who understand”, which “is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles”. But “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Cor 1:19, 23, 25). Whoever removes the Cross and its interpretation by the New Testament from the center, in order to replace it, for example, with the social commitment of Jesus to the oppressed as a new center, no longer stands in continuity with the apostolic faith. He does not see that God’s commitment to the world is most absolute precisely at this point across a chasm. (“The Cross for Us”)
Call it coincidental or providential, these words put the event that I was part of in it proper theological context. At a denominational event about “Tell It!” this 20th century Roman Catholic theologian made it quite clear that a church’s telling of any “it” that didn’t begin and end with what God did in Jesus Christ on the cross “no longer stands in continuity with the apostolic faith.” You will get no argument from me that a genuine commitment to the Gospel of the Cross of Christ will invariably and inevitably issue in a social commitment to the oppressed, but the social commitment to the oppressed is not the Gospel that needs to be told first, or loudest, or most frequently.
In the May/June 2009 issue of Modern Reformation, Mark Honegger contributed an article he called “The Problem is the Problem” that has haunted me since my first reading of it. He began –
The Gospel solves a problem and therein lies the pitfall. Which of the world’s many problems does it claim to solve? (10)
And then he made the argument that we will frame the Gospel we tell by the problem that we think it solves. Our evangelistic message is tailored to the need or needs that we think the Gospel meets. And so there are Gospels of self-esteem, better marriages, happier families, personal success, social action, political engagement, friendly fellowship, spiritual disciplines, compassionate service, thoughtful reflection, financial management, physical fitness and relational networking available in churches in any given community. And while I don’t doubt that the Gospel of the Cross of Christ has something to say to each and every one of these areas of life, none of them is the real problem that the Gospel of the Cross of Christ addresses.
Michael Horton in his book Christless Christianity (Baker 2008) wrote about how easy it is to “lose Christ by distraction” (143). This happens by simply putting the cart before the horse. And Michael makes it abundantly clear that the horse of Christianity is “Christ and Him crucified,” and that the cart is “someone or something other than Christ crucified.” He told this story –
A woman who was struggling in her marriage told a pastor friend of mine that she decided to visit his church because her home church was going through a sermon series “On How to Have a Better Marriage.” “What I need to hear most right now is who God is and what Christ has done for me even though I’m a wreck,” she explained. “My marriage needs a lot of things, but that more than anything else.” She was right. (144)
And this brings me back around to Mark Honegger’s article “The Problem is the Problem.” He wrote –
One sad thing about losing the problem is that it shows how little confidence the modern church has in the Gospel. We don’t really believe it will change the world. God, however, anticipated this doubt. Romans 1:16 has turned out to be a prophecy to our generation: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (11)
Ashamed of the Gospel? The church is whenever it offers something to people instead “the power of God for salvation” – when it tells about other things more passionately, more frequently and more directly than it tells about Jesus Christ and Him crucified. As Mark Honegger concluded –
The Gospel is that work of God so gentle it will not break a bruised reed nor quench the faintest wick, because the Gospel is how grace, the kindness of God, makes its way into the world. The Gospel is inaudible to people who don’t grasp its relevance; it is barely audible to a church that doubts its relevance. When God’s people lose the problem, they lose the Gospel… (11)