Why does the ‘gospel’ bring such despondency?

Today, the following question was asked by someone who is professionally involved in Adventist ministry in the UK. It began with the following text:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes…” Romans 1:16 NKJV

And now, his question:

Paul says that the gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone that believes. However, somehow, many people have walked out of the church, some feeling that salvation is not in their reach. Speaking to those who have left, I find that there is one recurring reason and that is, they have done too much wrong for God to forgive them… Now if the good news (the gospel),which is about what Christ has done to make us right with God is the power of God to save us, how is it that so many leave so despondent? Is it at all possible that we have been preaching a different ‘gospel’? Any thoughts anyone?

Here’s my response:

It has not been our intention to preach a different gospel, but there are a number of Adventist-specific cancers which have reduced our theology to ideology. Skip past the well-intentioned clichés about ‘head-religion’ and ‘heart-religion.’ Bottom line: twentieth-century global Adventism was dominated by the interests and concerns of the ‘baby boomer’ generation which expanded a biblically and theologically-unregulated framework in terms of what it actually means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ to something which became increasingly materialistic – and therefore more secular. The gospel was presented as only another lifestyle choice amongst another lifestyle choice. The blessings of God could be counted by health and wealth and pride in one’s children’s accomplishments. Adventist parents from 1975-2005 have been prouder of high-achieving children – even if they have left the faith – than they have been of those who remain with the faith but pay high prices for non-compromise. It is literally in the last ten years that Adventist parents have realised that their grandchildren are pretty far away from the faith, and that those grandchildren have seen right through the ‘do-as-I-say-but-not-as-I-do’ way of life.

This has in part been undergirded by what I have elsewhere referred to as a ‘circle of complicity.’ I know you have your issues, and I have my issues, but I won’t call you or expose you on your stuff if you leave mine well alone. So secular people know that we are Christian and compromised, but as long as no-one at church finds out…

…which, getting warmer and warmer, points towards one of the biggest factors to that which my friend has identified: this good news seems to only exist in the form of verbal propositions. It hasn’t transformed our churches into places in which people actually like each other. That means that we cannot trust each other. That means that our church communities are not safe spaces. Which in turn means that despite well-drilled praise teams singing “there is a sweet anointing in the sanctuary” we are committing spiritual perjury because Amos 5:22-24 (“…take away the noise of your songs…”) would now apply. We want to feel okay about ourselves because we’ve not left church, but you can leave God and lose our salvation without ever leaving the pew – fat KJV, quarterly, suit-and-tie, dress-and-heels to boot.

Because God is not as present as He would like, we resort to other ways to comfort ourselves. Distraction is a narcotic (clothes, again). So the lack of reverence in church? It’s NECESSARY for all those who are not in a good place with God but want to control the terms of their surrender to God. We’ll give up this. Sacrifice that. Moderate the other. On these days of the week. 5 weeks out of 7. We will not, under any circumstances, surrender control.

We have taught people that they are supposed to pursue the best of the world AND the best of God. The result: to paraphrase the poet George Herbert – we demand to be rich on earth as well as in heaven, which is more than God received, for he was ‘hungrie here.’

I’ll speak for myself. I was raised in a home with at least 80 (out of 130) of EGW’s published works, and l learned reams of KJV texts from memory.  I was a Pathfinder and more. I was a scrupulous Sabbath-keeper and learned to judge others for not being as prurient as I was. I learned that the most important thing was to have the right answers, eat the right food, use the right Bible – but none of those things gained me friends inside the church, where the emphasis was totally on external/material things (I suffered badly when I didn’t visit the barber or when my clothes were’t cool or when the church girls wouldn’t give me the time of day). So then as a late-teen Adventist, your job became to win affirmation from other teenage church members (and the older folks) – because if you didn’t have that, your church life WOULD be lonely.

The more ‘secular’ I was, the easier church was.

The more spiritual I became, the HARDER church has become.

We have re-made God in our own image. A God who, to use G.K. Chesterton’s expression (the book is called Brave New Family) is no longer “God the Father” but “God the Grandfather;” old, half-blind, half-deaf and totally benign. Whatever we say, goes.

If the gospel is correctly presented in a technical sense, but then points to a God who, in the words of Nietzsche, is ‘human, all too human’ then this gospel will not only fail to bring peace, it WILL bring depression. And for some people, that will be clinical.

We want the ‘rest’ of the gospel, but we refuse the ‘yoke’ of the gospel. And I have a strong word for all those limited preachers who make a lot of noise and ‘buke’ the members: if you had more security, you’d speak more quietly and be more concerned to ‘show’ people who Jesus is: not ‘tell them how it is’ and do all their thinking for them. Some of the theology that I’ve heard preached about ‘righteousness’ and ‘perfection’ is simply under-prayed, under-thought and under-studied. Salvation is more than we think. Discipleship is the kind of ‘simple’ that philosophers know is profound beyond profundity. Salvation is FREE. Discipleship costs EVERYTHING!

Last point: God has not actually called us to ‘discipleship’ and ‘obedience.’ Not in the primary sense of either of those words.

He has called us to relationship. And just as conjugal (sexual) relations are totally inappropriate between two people who are not married, WORSHIP is an intimate activity that is singularly inappropriate for people who are not prepared to ‘go down the aisle – all the way’ with Jesus.

“The Lord is my Shepherd…” But if Jesus is going to be your shepherd, He must also be your Lord. If you want Jesus to be Saviour and Redeemer and Prince of Peace, then He must also be Lord.

A gospel where God is not Lord is no gospel at all, and peace is impossible. Give me an honest atheist over a hypocritical Christian any day…they’re less likely to damn you to hell when you fall short.

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