Theology 101

The “Gospel of Sin Management” Distorts the Good News

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“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want”  John 5:39–40 (The Message).

A friend who is an assistant pastor called me recently, frustrated by his new boss. The executive pastor of his church is a retired executive from a Fortune 500 company. He has implemented metrics to measure employee performance and adherence to a strategic plan. A sort-of “how to” for doing church.

My friend’s question to me was, “Shouldn’t the church be more interested in why their employees do what they do instead of how?”

This is certainly an important question, and it made me think about a broader application of this idea: “Isn’t Jesus more interested in why his followers do what they do instead of how?”

The DIY Self-Help Gospel

In the passage from the Gospel of John above, Jesus is telling the Pharisees that the promise of life is not found in religious teaching; even obeying God’s laws will not get them what they seek. Focusing their lives on knowledge and performance alone is a futile exercise. We see the same thing far too often in the church today. Dallas Willard, in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, describes it this way:

History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.

Willard goes on to describe this distorted view of the gospel as the “gospel of sin management.”

The answer to sin is not a system of knowledge or performance, or some combination of the two. Pastor Tim Keller speaks to the same issue in his classic book, The Reason for God:

There is a great gulf between the understanding that God accepts us because of our efforts and the understanding that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done. Religion operates on the principle, “I obey—therefore I am accepted by God.” But the operating principle of the gospel is “I am accepted by God through what Christ has done—therefore I obey.”

What Willard and Keller are both saying is that it’s not the obedience but the motive that drives our actions that is most important. The Bible is not a rule book to keep you out of trouble with God. It is the story of God’s redemptive plan for his creation administered by his son, Jesus Christ. In fact, Christ is not only carrying out the plan…he is the plan. We need to see that the entire Bible, from the opening chapter of Genesis to the last verse of Revelation, is about Jesus and the kingdom of God.

Having a sense of God’s big-picture plan makes all the difference at life’s pivotal moments. There is such a moment in The Lord of the Rings, in a scene where Sam says to Frodo:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something.

Then Frodo looks up and asks, “What are we holding onto, Sam?”

My question for you today is, “What are you holding on to?”

The Bible: Not about “How To” but “Who”

We don’t want to be like the Pharisees holding on to a book, constantly scanning it for the rules to follow so we might know how to have life. The Bible is not about how; it is about who. Keller again underscores this idea:

There are two ways to read the Bible. The one way to read the Bible is that it’s basically about you: what you have to do in order to be right with God, in which case you’ll never have a sure and certain hope, because you’ll always know you’re not quite living up. You’ll never be sure about that future. Or you can read it as all about Jesus. Every single thing is not about what you must do in order to make yourself right with God, but what he has done to make you absolutely right with God. And Jesus Christ is saying, “Unless you can read the Bible right, unless you can understand salvation by grace, you’ll never have a sure and certain hope. But once you understand it’s all about me, Jesus Christ, then you can know that you have peace. You can know that you have this future guaranteed, and you can face anything.”

In a previous blog, I talked about the importance of “Why” and seeing the bigger picture of the biblical metanarrative.  Everything we do, all of our work in our vocations, our families, our communities, and our churches should flow out of our relationship with Christ.

It is our love for the Master that should be the catalyst for all of our work. He is the one we need to hold on to. The “Who” and the “Why” are inseparable.

True Christian obedience in all areas of life—personal, work, family, community, church—flows from a heart of gratitude, understanding the grace we have received from the one who is making all things new.

As the apostle John writes,

“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3–6).

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  • mark barr

    Tough topic to write on Hugh, infinite spiritual concepts are difficult for finite humans. Yet, the scriptures are not only sufficient they are written by men for men. One of the reasons the Holy Spirit carried men along to write His words, is so the words could be understood by men. Even so scriptures are foolishness to the unregenerate. Without scripture, you and i could not know the person of Jesus. Without scripture i could not even know i was a sinner and needed the person of Jesus to be my Christ. The precept of your article is good, but it falls short, it leaves one thinking that daily devotions are not just a waste but counter productive in having a relationship with Jesus. And that is NOT Jesus admonishment in John 5. God bless you for your work, you are helping people reconcile the difficult precept of work and faith. Maybe you should try a follow up article…..

    • Hugh Whelchel

      Mark:
      Thanks you for your comments and encouragement. Your points are well taken and yes I am planning on doing some follow-up blogs on this subject…a lot more to talk about. It is one of the challenging thing about this format (we try to keep the blog under 1000 words).

  • I agree the WHY must be the cornerstone. So often in communicating, people choose a position of “or” instead of “and”…which the author is positioning a perspective that often means to simply emphasize a re-prioritization of the key topics of that perspective. I get what you are saying Hugh. I believe the spirit of what your saying to be that the WHY, WHO, WHAT, and HOW are all important. They just need to be prioritized properly. Focusing too much on the how (or prioritizing it above the WHY) will only lead to frustration for believers…maybe worse. Many variables can and do influence the HOW. So it often looks different in different situations. The WHY is baked…determined…done (Made me think of Ecc 3.14). The WHY is the fuel for the HOW. Thanks for making time to share this perspective. It was personally helpful as I am on an interesting pruning journey right now. It’s been healthy. But it’s been a battle as I had a growing focus on HOW and a waining focus on the WHY. It has really been an erosion of prioritization in my heart over time. I stumbled this weekend because I took my eyes off Him, just a little bit. The stumble doesn’t change the WHY nor the transformation He has already driven. I just need refuel my heart with the WHY. Thanks again. Blessings.

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