The Danger of Half-Gospels

John Wesley famously preached a sermon against "The Almost Christian." Reading it recently, I found myself reflecting on how many of the failures he tries to attack come from picking certain parts of Christianity and applying them to ourselves without joining them to other parts that are equally necessary. That pattern of picking and choosing makes me think about the gospel, the good news of God's salvation in Jesus, and how few in the modern church seem to actually embrace or live into it as a whole.

The issue is simple: for that message to make sense, we need to parts together to make it whole. The gospel only works if we understand deeply both that we are sinners and that Jesus freely saves sinners.

We must own our sinfulness - that we are not good or righteous, we are not even okay. We are rebels against heaven who poison all that we touch. Even our hidden and respectable sins should earn us damnation. When we point at the world as if the sin lives only out there rather than also inside our ribcages, when we reassure ourselves or others by listing the nice things they have done, when we think our religion or our righteousness earn us something before our perfect Creator, we have lost the gospel.

Likewise, we must own God's grace. Jesus died to seek and save sinners, only sinners, and to bring us to life and grace. He pays for the full guilt of everything we have done. He knows far better than we do the evil in our hearts and He delights in us anyway. He marries Himself to us, knowing we are a faithless bride. He welcomes us in, knowing we will be prodigal children.

To lose either side of this reality is to lose the whole gospel. 

There are those who, in the name of grace, seek to minimize sin. They shudder to speak of it, minimize it, and do their best to convince everyone that we're all great. In the name of "love" they stroke our self-esteem and coddle our egos and ask with the serpent, "Did God really say?" 

Those ear-ticklers have denied the reality of our sin, but the irony is that they also lose the reality of God's grace. They tell people, "Jesus died to rescue those who had it all together and were doing a really great job on their own but who could maybe be inspired to do even better." This isn't grace; it is nonsense. You can't have forgiveness if you don't need to be forgiven.

At the same time, there are those who in the name of sin minimize grace. They might not come out and deny it, but they certainly don't think it gets you very far. Instead, they try to motivate obedience through guilt and shame. They think they can berate and badger lost lambs into the kingdom of heaven. Our hope is not that we have our sins covered by the cross but that we can try really hard and maybe not make baby Jesus cry.

Those fearmongers lose grace, but they also lose sin. Such brimstone-peddlers are inevitably hypocrites because they cannot bear the burden of the law without the grace meant to help support us under it. As a consequence, in practice if not in word, their list of sins grows ever narrower and ever more skewed toward the obvious and "worldly." The idea that harshness, gossip, and pride might damn us gets pushed aside and all that is left is the extremes of profligation.

In the gospel, we must have both sin and grace at the same time, and we must always press more into one and then the other. The way to grow in our victory over sin is to experience the free forgiveness of Jesus Christ when we fail. The way to know the depths of God's grace is to endeavor with our whole beings to mortify the flesh in all its guises. As we confront our sin, the cross is magnified. As the mercy of the cross gets clearer, we more clearly see our need for it. Sin is the lens through which we understand grace; grace is the light that illuminates our sin.

Perhaps my deepest prayer as a pastor is that I might believe, reflect, and teach both sides of this reality. After all, to experience only one side or the other is actually to miss it altogether. Instead, my prayer is that we might learn to love the whole gospel. Or, as Wesley expresses it in the conclusion of his sermon: "May we all thus experience what it is to be, not almost only; but altogether Christians; being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus; knowing we have peace with God through Jesus Christ; rejoicing in hope of the glory of God; and having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost given unto us!"