What is the gospel?
This section illustrates the confounding and purposeful ambiguity of liberalism, which uses many of the same terms we do but means something different by them. I’m reminded of the liberal pastor’s advice to Peter Fromm in The Flight of Peter Fromm, that liberals must learn to become “loyal liars” who use Christian terms like “resurrection” even when they don’t believe that Jesus bodily arose from the dead. In this way they keep their jobs, as their aging members have no idea that their pastor no longer believes the orthodox faith.
Brian uses so much Scripture in this section that it will convince many readers that his view is biblical, especially those who are unaware that Brian means something different by “sin,” “grace,” “faith,” and “all” than Paul meant when he wrote Romans. This should be obvious from the top, for Brian directly says that the gospel is not “justification by grace through faith” and has nothing to do with Christ’s penal substitution (which he does not believe).
Instead, the gospel is simply that the kingdom of God has come. This kingdom represents “a new way to life, a new way of peace that [carries] good news to all people of every religion,” for it “has room for many religious traditions within it.” The kingdom essentially means reconciliation between us and God and between us and our neighbor. Jesus came to call us to repent, “to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP!”
With this assumption Brian turns to Romans to see if his new understanding of the gospel can make sense of what Paul wrote there. Brian begins by claiming that Romans is not “an exposition of the gospel” but instead merely intends to address a practical question which arose from the gospel: how could Jews and Gentiles be reconciled? This seems wrong by Brian’s own definitions: if the Gospel = Kingdom = Reconciliation, then by the transitive property of the kingdom, Jew-Gentile reconciliation would belong to the heart of the gospel rather than merely an application of it.
Moving on, Brian gives a summary of Romans in which he agrees with Paul that “all are sinners” who need grace which comes by faith. The sin which everyone seems to be guilty of is division, having an “us vs. them” mentality. Salvation is reconciliation, which because it is universal must include those of other religions. Brian says that “Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion to replace first Judaism and then all other religions” but to teach those of every religion how to co-exist in “nonjudgmental love.” Brian thinks that this is the point of Romans 5: being “in Adam” isn’t about why everyone sins but rather that “our diverse religious systems” find their “genesis” in Adam who unites us all.
Questions and Observations:
1. Brian says that he does not believe in a Fall, original sin, or total depravity. This seems to imply that he has an overly optimistic view of humanity, but it might also mean that his anthropology is actually too dark. It may even be both, with Brian oscillating between “people are good” and “people are irretrievably broken” without attempting to synthesize the two.
If Genesis 3 is “a classic coming-of-age story” of how childish humans learned to “lose their fearlessness in relation to God” and evolved into adults who unleashed greater amounts of evil with every cultural “stage of ascent,” then evil is a necessary part of the human condition. And if humans have always been fallen (note that Brian does not believe there was an original Adam who lived in an unfallen world), then what hope is there for our recovery? Why would we trust God to redeem us if he didn’t make us right in the first place?
I wrote my dissertation on H. Richard Niebuhr, who held a similar view. One of my criticisms of Niebuhr is that he did not distinguish creation from fall but identified creation as our problem. To be is to be fallen. Since our problem is that we exist, redemption means to lose our individuality and be absorbed into the being of God. Niebuhr was probably a panentheist, which is what Brian also seems to be when he denies the natural-supernatural dualism (see “Interlude” post).
2. Brian’s notion of sin seems to be primarily external or social—it amounts to judgmental violence committed against others. While I agree that social sin is prevalent and serious, we need to emphasize that sin is first and foremost rebellion against God, which then leads to violence toward others.
3. How does Brian think salvation happens? He dismisses penal substitution and justification by grace through faith, but doesn’t offer anything in their place. All that’s left, although he doesn’t spell this out, is that we are saved by following the example of Jesus the liberator, who came to show us how to love our neighbor. Brian needs to tell us if he thinks that there is more to salvation than this. Otherwise we may assume that he holds a Pelagian, liberal view, which lacks sufficient grace to save anyone.
4. This section is scary, for it illustrates how close people may come to the gospel and still miss the point. Brian argues that his view is biblical because of the many texts which teach us to be reconciled with our neighbor. Loving our neighbor is a major focus of Scripture, so we should not be surprised that Brian is able to find many passages which support this claim. But he omits Scripture’s more foundational teaching about regeneration through trusting Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection—the personal change which alone enables us to be reconciled with others.
5. This section illustrates how personal biases can drive exegesis. Brian suggests that Rom. 1:26 does not speak to today’s homosexual practice because Paul could not have known about the complicating matter of sexual orientation (as if Paul never met an effeminate man); “all” throughout Romans implies soteriological universalism (if so then why does Paul say that people need to hear the gospel to be saved?—Rom. 10:13-15); and reconciliation with neighbor means that members of all religions can be saved regardless of what they believe.
To the point: Brian’s understanding of sin is insufficiently developed, which leads to a corresponding weakness in his explanation of salvation. He needs to clearly explain what sin is, why everyone has it, and how Jesus saves us from that sin. He hasn’t done that yet, so I can only conclude that he does not yet understand the gospel.