No one in the Bible, when described in a judgment scene, is asked if they accepted, trusted, or embraced the soterian gospel. In other words, “Did you accept Jesus into your heart consciously?” or “Did you walk the aisle to receive Christ?” or “Did you accept that Christ was your righteousness?” No one.
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Over at RedState, Leon H. Wolf is reporting that “James Dobson doesn’t want to be a sucker for Donald Trump anymore.”
This is a follow-up to an earlier piece Wolf wrote, called “Evangelical Leaders Continue to Prove that there’s a Sucker Born Every Minute,” in which he remarked,
You don’t have to be an exceptionally cynical person to believe that Trump is manifestly not a Christian, and is cynically using Christians for his electoral purposes; you just have to be a person with a brain and a passing familiarity with Christianity. Throughout the entirety of his public life he has made it abundantly clear that he has no interest in Christianity or anything it teaches, and his behavior on the campaign trail has done nothing but reinforce that.
Nevertheless, on the campaign trail he has suckered a good number of Evangelicals in spite of saying absurd things like, “I can’t tell you what my favorite Bible verse is because that’s too personal,” and “I’ve never felt the need to ask for God’s forgiveness,” and “Okay I’ll tell you what my favorite Bible verse is, it’s that part in Two Corinthians where the Bible says you’re supposed to take an eye for an eye.” Nothing about Trump’s persona, his platform, or his policy is even remotely Christian but he tells Evangelicals he is one of them and some of them feel content to throw aside their critical thinking skills altogether and believe him.
Apparently Dobson is now walking back his assertion about Trump’s “born again experience.” On top of that, Dobson revealed that the person who supposedly led Donald Trump to the Lord is noted prosperity gospel preacher Paula White, not exactly a credible source of information about theological matters. The whole thing is just plain embarrassing.
Why do I bring up this story? Let me say at the outset that I don’t really give a rat’s behind about the political angles here. It is just another crazy circus story from Big Top 2016 as far as I’m concerned.
What does bother me, though, is how the “gospel” of American evangelicalism is represented in this story.
Seriously, this is the gospel? Whether Dobson is retracting what he said about the Donald or not, I don’t hear him clarifying his understanding of the gospel he said Trump “accepted.” I don’t hear him suggesting he was misquoted or misunderstood about what he meant by someone being “born again.” The “gospel” he talked about was appallingly shallow and transactional.
Though I had a spiritual awakening as a teenager in a revivalistic Southern Baptist Church, walked the aisle, and “accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior,” and though at the time I thought that was the proper “procedure,” and though I continued to live and minister in a Christian culture for many years that emphasized “making a decision for Christ” and “leading others to Christ” by having them pray a prayer and “receive” Jesus, it never felt quite right to me. As though entering God’s Kingdom is like a simple transaction, like purchasing a ticket and reserving a seat on the train to glory. As though it has always been understood in biblical times and throughout church history that all a person has to do is bow his head and pray a simple prayer to be transformed and alter his entire earthly and eternal destiny.
In my view, Dobson sounded foolish not because he might have been gullible about Donald Trump, but a thousand times more because of the facile, superficial gospel message he represented in his statements. This is what Scot McKnight calls the “soterian” gospel in extremis. An individualistic, commercial transaction. Jesus paid the fee, I got the ticket. I get to go to heaven because I prayed a prayer. Jesus gets to forgive me and have me on his side.
In another post, I wrote about a much more robust message of good news that I believe to be more faithful to the biblical story:
The gospel is an announcement of a public event that has taken place, an event which has changed everything. It is not advice or instruction given to us, it is a proclamation that Jesus has become King, that God has taken charge of the world through the finished work of the Messiah. God has established his rule of justice and peace in the world. God’s enemies have been defeated and will not win the war. The resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit means that the new era has been inaugurated. It’s a new day. The divine process of transforming the world has begun in earnest. The announcement of this gospel invites all who hear it to embrace the good news and become part of the transformation. “If anyone is in Christ — new creation!” (2Cor. 5:17, literal translation). The person herself becomes renewed, but even more than that, she becomes part of God’s new creation here and now, right in the midst of this present life. Through baptism she dies to the old creation and is “raised to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
God has taken charge of the world. Everything has changed. The new world has begun in Christ, who has taken his throne.
Inviting people to participate in this good news is not about getting them to pray a prayer, walk an aisle, receive Jesus into their heart, or believe in a “plan of salvation.” It means inviting them to enter a new world, leaving behind the old one. It is about Jesus front and center, and changing one’s loyalty from Caesar to Christ. Using the image of new birth, it means entering a new family and beginning the process of growing up within that household. It’s akin to someone in our culture enlisting in military service. You walk through the gate and you are no longer your own. You no longer live in the civilian world. You better get ready for a new life.
These changes are profound and life-altering. That is why, in yet another post about the gospel, I explored the idea that church traditions have not taken the matter of conversion as lightly as today’s evangelicals do, as represented in the recent statements by James Dobson. In that article I argued that churches have traditionally presented a “structured gospel” — that is, a gospel that brings forgiveness and freedom to obey, which comes through ordered means that provide clarity for the life of faith through disciplined practices.
As an example, I considered the story of Saul, who became the Apostle Paul. Contrary to the common assumption that Paul’s life was transformed in a moment, the New Testament accounts describe a process of conversion. On the Damascus Road, Jesus got Paul’s attention in a dramatic fashion, and introduced himself to him, yes. But then, before ever saying a word about forgiveness or salvation, the risen Lord sent him to the church. There, through such community practices as fasting, solitude, prayer, the laying on of hands, baptism, and public witness, Paul became a thoroughly converted, changed man. And then, if you read Paul’s own recollection in Galatians 1, after that he dropped out of sight, living in obscurity for three years before going to Jerusalem to meet with church leaders and present himself for ministry. N.T. Wright suggests that this may have been Paul’s “Elijah” period, when he was learning that zeal for the Law must be replaced by suffering for a crucified Messiah. A thorough conversion in the context of community, with means and a process.
And we have “the sinner’s prayer.” We have people like Paula White “leading Saul to Christ.” Please.
There are many ways in which I have come to see that contemporary evangelical faith is a cartoon faith — a flat, colorful, but ultimately childish caricature of what the Bible and church tradition have given us. There’s little humanity in it. Little depth. Little that resonates with the actual human experiences of struggling and growing and becoming mature human beings of faith, hope, and love together, planting seeds for a harvest of righteousness in the new creation.
Whatever James Dobson was talking about, it wasn’t the gospel.