Seeing Christmas as gospel

Some of you may know that I enjoy, over and above all other topics surrounding theology (at least for now), I enjoy discussion about the Gospel. I was exuberant to know that it was going to be made my High School’s theme of the year my Senior year, and I’ve been equally pleased about my church’s emphasis on the Gospel. In the last year my pastor preached through the book of Luke, which was refreshing as it’s often neglected in our circles that see Paul’s epistles as the center of the Biblical Canon. I wanted to share with you on this Christmas Eve, some of my recent thoughts on the gospel and Christmas.

Some of you will recall when Jason Regnier and I spoke in Senior Chapel on redefining the Gospel. Really what we meant by choosing a title like that was that we, as a church, as evangelicals, in America, need to be thinking about rethinking how we talk about the Gospel, and what Jesus and Paul really meant with it.

Briefly then, I just want to clarify what has already been written and said elsewhere, and in doing so, show how Christmas is not merely an introduction, or a bit of rising action, but an essential part of the Gospel.

First, what is not the Gospel. Most people in the American church understand the gospel along these sort of lines: God mad us. He is holing and loving. We sinned, God’s wrath is against us, but he sent his son Christ to die in our place and become our sin. If we believe in his death and resurrection, his righteousness becomes ours and we can escape this world to be with him in heaven when we die.

That is what I have called the personal salvation gospel, Scot McKnight has called it more technically the soterian gospel. Of course everything I just mentioned as part of the soterian gospel is biblical truth (sort of, the parts about imputed righteousness and the platonic view of escaping this earth is less biblical, but i digress…). The big point here is this is not what the New Testament means by Gospel. It is only part, and this overemphasis of personal salvation swallows a much larger and richer story about King Jesus.

This Salvation-centered gospel is what we’ve been “evangelizing” people with for many years now. Let me share with you a statistic in Evangelical American Churches–the people that mainly preach the soterian gospel. 90% of the children in these churches pray the sinner’s prayer and make a decision for Jesus, asking him into their heart, etc. By age 35, less than 20% of those who prayed the sinner’s prayer have anything to do with the Church of Jesus. Here is the fact. Since the emergence of the personal salvation gospel, people are leaving the church in record numbers. I have argued quite lengthily elsewhere, that this is because the personal salvation gospel is good at coercing children into making decisions, but not at making lifelong disciples of Jesus. Primarily because it asks the wrong question: Do you want to be saved from eternal hell? The question the Gospel is really asking is: Who do you say Jesus is? Just as Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And they knew that by answering “you are the lord, and messiah…” that meant life was now going to be different.

On the basis of 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel sermons in Acts, and the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, let me layout in brief the Gospel: The Gospel is the story of Israel coming to fulfillment in Jesus as Messiah–Jewish for King. The Jews of Jesus’ day were not waiting for God to send someone to get them into heaven and rescue them from earth, they were waiting for the second David, the ruler that would end Roman oppression.

How does this differ from the personal salvation gospel? The personal salvation gospel frames things in an individualistic, escape hell kind of way. The New Testament story of the Gospel is a story that comes to its fulfillment in the King Jesus, who will populate his Kingdom by saving a corporate body, a people of God, the now interlocked Israel and Church. If the Gospel is at its core fundamentally not about rescuing individual sinners, but rather a story that makes disciples, how can we see Christmas?

First, if the Gospel is the story of Jesus, then it follows that Christmas is indeed part of the Gospel. In the personal salvation gospel scheme, it would be just as well if Jesus had simply flown onto the cross. Ask yourself, for what you believe the Gospel is, does it matter if Jesus was born, or lived? Or does just the ending few chapters of the first four books of the NT all that matters? Christmas is the beginning of the story Gospel. If you think the gospel is about personal salvation, you might be puzzled about why Matthew begins his telling of the gospel with that long stuffy genealogy.

The genealogy has 3 main points. 1. Jesus is King-Jewish Messiah. 2. Jesus is a descendant of David. 3. Jesus is a descendant of Abraham. The Gospel, which is what Matthew is, is a declaration that Jesus is King, and the story of ho he became king. Genealogy in Jewish culture only mattered if you were royalty–this being confirmed by the presence of David, and with Abraham, this is the story of Israel, and really the world, because Abraham is classified as a proselyte–so a gentile.

What else is intriguing to me, and quite against the culture of the time, is the mention of 4 women. Each noted for what could be seen as sexual irregularity–setting the stage for Mary, the most irregular of all.

This is not an introduction that can be skipped over. Rather the genealogy in Matthew is an essential framework, a nutshell expression of the Gospel–as we’ve said, Jesus is King. At Christmas we are called to proclaim the Gospel story. This baby, son of Mary, is King, and Son of God. After 400 years of silence, God again comes to dwell with his people. Emmanuel. Matthew 2:1-12 is great here. Matthew is telling us about king Herod to say he is going down, and the son of Mary and Joseph is the reason why. Herod stews and plots, but he has completely failed to secure his rule. God’s promised Messiah will not be thwarted, and even when Rome’s cruelest torture is brought to bare on him, seeming to end his quest for Kingship, King Jesus shows this was the father’s plan all along. Through death, God has unleashed the Kingdom of life.

Merry Christmas!


*Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright have been major influences for some of the thoughts in this blog. McKnight’s book “King Jesus Gospel” and Wright’s “How God Became King” are excellent.


Thoughts on “Phil Robertson Suspended”

Phil Robertson, patriarch on A&E’s hit TV sensation “Duck Dynasty” is being suspended from the show indefinitely for making inappropriate comments that do not align with A&E’s own view. This morning Christians began rallying behind Phil Robertson and “took a stand with Phil.” To me this is utterly perplexing. For the most part, it seems that Christians are confused about what actually happened. Just to clarify, Phil Robertson is not being suspended for a belief that is contrary to A&E’s, he is being suspended for making crude comments. He is not being suspended for being a Christian, for quoting scripture, for proclaiming truth. No, far from it. Phil Robertson is being suspended because in a magazine interview he was asked, “What is sinful?” Phil Robertson responds: Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”and goes on to say: “it seems like, to me, a woman’s vagina, as a man, would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying?”

This is fascinating as an insight into the modern American Christian conception of what sin is: “Start with homosexuality”–as if to say that everything else comes after that or moves out from this point of inertia. This flies in the face of a Biblical view of sin which locates depravity and idolatry as the root, not homosexuality. Why do American Christians have such a fetish with homosexuality? It is hardly mentioned in the New Testament compared with sins like divorce, greed, lust in general, etc. Homosexuality as a great evil is an American Christian agenda, not an agenda of Jesus or Paul.

Next his statement makes horrible implications about how some Christians view homosexuality. Seeming to suggest that a gay man could just “wake up” to the attraction of the female body. That’s the whole thing about sexual attraction, though: you don’t choose it, and you can’t find something attractive that you don’t. If you tell me to wake up to the sexual attractiveness of a cardboard box, my feelings will not just change. Likewise, Phil’s statement implies that gay people can choose what they are attracted to. The room to debate this issue is becoming much smaller. See John Piper, Al Mohler and a host of others on this issue. It isn’t “just a lifestyle choice.” See what I’ve said elsewhere on this issue:

It should be noted that some of Phil’s response in regard to this explosion of controversy have been more decent. But all of those comment have been lost in the sea of Christians that have begun to speak out and voice their support for what Phil said and did, which in case you’ve forgotten, see his comments above. This move to position Phil as a figure head and martyr absolutely boggles my mind on several counts.

1.) If you really do care about the issue of homosexuality as it’s found in scripture, wouldn’t you want your opinion to be articulated humbly, lovingly, and well? The caricature we find in Phil’s statements doesn’t seem very well thought out, and certainly isn’t gracious.

2.) Homosexuality is an absolutely massive issue and opportunity for the Church to engage with culture in dialogue. But expressing polarizing views and using the “shock jock” rhetoric that Phil employs is not a way to get conversation going. In fact it does the opposite, solidifying the view of most gays that Christians are hateful bigots and then also making Christians bewilderingly passionate about a skewed issue. This is a mess all around.

3.) The Robertson’s are not living a life that is harmonious with the New Testament vision of Christian living. Their multimillionaire lifestyle combined with the large amount of money they seemingly spend on luxury and foolery might be entertaining, but it’s not Christian. IN fact, I would dare to say that their lifestyle is totally contradictory in a fundamental way to Paul’s idea of Christian life. Phil might want to see what the Bible says to the Christian about money, fading glory, and suffering.

4.) And for me this is the most irritating point. For two years now I have been wrestling with the question, “What is the Gospel?” I have lots of formulations in answer to this and an infinite amount still to read. But in his response, Phil at one point says he was just “standing for the gospel.” Homosexuality as a sin has Zero to do with the Gospel. Zero.

So much more can and should and will be said, but here’s a starting point. Please comment back and let’s flesh this out! Also, thanks to Adam Wagner for his contributions to this post and the much larger conversation about homosexuality. He has been a longtime friend and ally to me in the trenches for this fight! Cheers!

Christianity and Environmental Ethics

In my first semester of college at the University of Toledo this past Fall, I took PHIL 3180–a philosophy course on Environmental Ethics. This was somewhat by accident. I was the sole Freshman in the class of about 30, with all the others being Juniors and Seniors. Aside from the basic work load readiness, the others in the class were also mainly environmental science majors. I’m a History major, specializing in analysis and concepts, not science. This made the large volume of reading material a challenge to say the least. But I have to say, I loved the class. The professor was excellent. If you’re at UT and have the opportunity to take Dr. Ben Grazzini, you absolutely should. He seems to have a genuine concern for the well being of his students. I was really excited to hear back from him in an email last week where he told me that my term paper, “Concerning Christianity and Environmental Ethics” was one of the “most intellectually-curious non-obvious pieces of work” he had ever received from a student. Semester=made. Here is a PDF of my paper below! If you have any feedback or questions please comment! I’d love to flesh this out as much as possible. So much more to be said on this issue, but here’s a start: