I am an evangelical. That statement needs explanation.
I am a theological evangelical. I believe the Bible is the divinely-inspired word of God. I believe it is inerrant and sufficient. I believe a person must be born again in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Apart from this spiritual resurrection, we die in our sins and we suffer God’s eternal wrath forever. Christ Jesus, the Son of God, atones for our sin in his death on the cross. He provides our righteousness by his perfect obedience. There is no salvation from sin and judgment apart from that Christ offered in the gospel. None. But by repentance and faith, all that Christ is and all that Christ has done is ours. Evangelicals at our best are “gospel people.”
But being “gospel people” comes with a peculiar pitfall. It’s possible to be the kind of “gospel people” who use appeals to “the gospel” as a way of escape rather than engagement. Let’s call this “gospel escapism,” that attempt to flee from either the banality or brutality of life by superficial recourse to the gospel. These “gospel people” use the word “gospel” in their writing and speeches a lot. They think simply mentioning the word is the same thing as applying the various truths of Jesus’ life and work to the exigencies of life. It’s escapism because it fails to see in any deep way how Jesus’ Incarnation, active obedience, sacrificial and substitutionary death, resurrection, heavenly session and imminent return for sinners speaks to the troubled life of the sinner in any way other than deliverance into another world.
Let me try to illustrate with four comments that sometimes indicate “gospel escapism” is at work.
“The Problem Is Sin”
We hear this all the time. And, of course, it’s a true statement. Mankind’s most fundamental or radical problem is sin, our bent and rebellion against God and His holy commands. So far, that’s good Christian theology.
But when we hear “The problem is sin” as a way of actually dismissing sin or turning our eyes from the variegated brokenness that multiple forms of sin produce, then it’s not good theology. It’s escapism.
We’ve heard people say “The problem is sin” a lot over the last couple weeks. A handful of people spoke of the sins of all involved, though they rarely got specific about what they meant. But usually it was Mike Brown’s sins that received attention. We were reminded in so many ways that Brown was “no angel,” a “thug” who deserved what he got. His problem was sin. That’s it.
But that’s escapism. It’s running away from a more complex view of Brown, of the history and systems that produce a Ferguson, and the many other persons involved. It’s escapism through reduction.
And it’s tragic. It’s really a strange thing when Christians point out another’s sin without remembering what Christ did to atone for that sin. It’s a sad day when Christians who know the horrors of hell fail to lament that a sinner may have met Christ as Judge rather than Redeemer. And it’s an almost criminal day when those that dared lament this horrible possibility are scolded by those who refuse to weep over a lost soul.
“It’s sin. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t bother me with empathy, compassion, suffering with those who suffer or anything of the sort. It has nothing to do with injustice or systems or the like. It’s just sin.” To be sure sin is always at work. But when was sin ever a mere thing?
“What People Really Need Is the Gospel”
There’s a second form of “gospel escapism” at work in the church. It’s more hopeful than the “The problem is sin” variety. This form of escapism focuses not on the problem but on the solution. We may encounter it when we hear people say, “What people really need is the gospel.”
Well, again, who could argue that? Everyone needs the gospel. All the time. Christian and non-Christian alike. The non-Christian to be rescued from the wrath to come and to know the love of God through Jesus Christ His Son. The Christian, prone to leak like a sieve, needs the gospel to remember what Christ has done for him/her that life might be marked by the Lord’s companionship.
Yes, the world really needs the gospel.
But if we find ourselves making that statement as a final rejoinder to real life problems, then we had better ask ourselves if we mean it. Do we mean it enough to actually share the gospel with someone? Do we mean it enough to go into “those communities” where the gospel “is really needed”? We may not live in Ferguson, Missouri, but we may be sure there’s a “Ferguson” somewhere nearby. It could be the inner-city neighborhood that we fear and loathe and stereotype until we drive wide circles around it. Or it could be the trailer park that we hide from the main thoroughfares of our towns so that obscurity and despondency overwhelm it. It could be the Native American reservations into which we’ve clustered the country’s first peoples and in which they drown in alcohol and gambling. When we hear ourselves saying “They really need the gospel,” do we see ourselves going to take it to them?
If so, I praise God for you! Chances are you’re in a significant minority.
Far too many of us talk of the world’s need for the gospel but then we bottle it up in our private devotions, small groups and Bible studies. We seldom find ourselves talking to actual people in actual communities of need giving them the one thing we confidently claim they need most. So our appeal to “the gospel” is really a happy pill, a sugar pill, a feel good placebo we administer to ourselves while people made in God’s image barrel toward the cliff of God’s judgment. It’s the pill we take in order to remain hooked up to the matrix of an Evangelical dream state. That statement, usually said to other Christians, never even makes contact with the real world.
“There Won’t Be Justice Until Jesus Comes”
Then there is the eschatological escapist mantra: “There won’t be justice until Jesus comes.” This person is pessimistic about the entire society, not just individual sin. They hold no hope for lasting justice or peace or anything else in this life. Only when Jesus comes will things be set to rights, paradise restored, Eden transformed into a city where evil has no apartment.
And, as is the case with the other statements, this comment is true. The government shall be on Jesus’ shoulders. His everlasting kingdom is the only perfectly righteous kingdom. When Jesus returns, there will be no courts, grand juries, prosecutors, defense attorneys, nor even defendants. All will be settled and we will behold His glory. This gives hope to all Christians everywhere.
But does that mean there’s no real and difficult work to do now, in this life, for the lives that matter here? Our blessed hope becomes our escapist dream when we make what Jesus will perfect an enemy to what we can improve. We’re guilty of gospel escapism when what should purify us (1 John 3:2-3) and motivate us to greater righteousness actually makes us lazy, cools our zeal, and turns our eyes from the grittiness of neighbor love. If that happens, we’re not dealing with life as it really is. We are lost in the clouds. Our feet are planted firmly in mid-air.
I have often mentioned my disdain for the old phrase, “Don’t be so heavenly minded you’re of no earthly good.” I’ve often said that the only way to be of earthly good is to become more heavenly minded. But now I see the cliche holds truth and my retort needs qualification. There are folks who think of heaven as an answer to all earthly problems so that they don’t have to deal with those earthly problems. Those folks need the warning the cliche gives.
The heavenly mindedness that makes us of earthly good sets its mind on things above (Col. 3:1-4) then immediately puts to death the things that are earthly (Col. 3:5-11). True heavenly mindedness dresses in virtue–especially love (Col. 3:12-17). It eliminates ethnic, religious, cultural and class hostilities by the power of a sanctified Christian life (Col. 3:11). If we have this kind of heavenly mind, we change the world. We don’t flee it.
Finally, many professing evangelicals have an easy button, an escape hatch of all escape hatches. They simply blame President Obama. The situation doesn’t matter. The President’s actual powers don’t matter. If all the other escape routes are closed off, there’s always the trap door and sliding shoot that carries far from real life. His name is Obama. Say that name at just the right point and–poof!–any real world discussion or problem requiring genuine Christian witness and engagement vanishes from sight.
I pray we work against any form of escapism that keeps us from being salt and light. I especially pray we work against escapism in the name of “the gospel.” If we would be “gospel people” in the best sense of the phrase, then we must be honest people. We must have that good Samaritan honesty that sees the situation accurately and enters it compassionately. When we’re in the situation, we may have to point out sin, we hope to actually do the work of evangelism, and we may have to point people to the world to come because “inconsolable things” break us in this life. But let none of that be superficial or trite. Let it be true and engaged.