Your questions are so well put I thought I’d just enter them into this letter back to you. You write:
I am writing to ask about the nature of Jesus’ gospel message. I tend to think the gospel is more holistic than just a message of spiritual salvation, but of holistic transformation possible through Jesus. Lots of my friends talk about the offensive nature of the Gospel and for some reason this really disturbs me. I know that there are passages that talk about the message being a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, but for some reason the idea of promoting an offensive message just doesn’t settle right for me. It doesn’t seem to match up with how Jesus lived and ministered to people, unless I am missing something. Do you think the Gospel message is offensive? In what ways? Is there better terminology?
Nothing is more important to the Church today, Emily, than getting the gospel straight. I’ll make more comments about “offensiveness” below, but I want to begin with this: there is something odd about calling what God does for us in Jesus Christ both the “good news” and, at the same time, calling it “offensive.” So, maybe we should take a good solid look at the “good news” itself before we see if it is also offensive. Now, I get to cheat here: I wrote a book on the “good news” called Embracing Grace, and while I don’t think I get everything perfect right there, I do think it is a fresh way of explaining what the gospel is. It’s as straight as I can put it right now. I’m finding this little book to be the favorite book of what I’ve written.
I’ll give you an outline of “embracing grace” but it is really one long sentence that puts together what I explain in that book:
The gospel is:
1. The work of God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit,
2. In the context of the community of faith (Israel then the Church)
3. To restore cracked Eikons (we are made in God’s image [Eikons] but we ruined it by sin)
4. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and
5. The gift of the Holy Spirit
6. To union with God and self and
7. To union with one with one another
8. To be missional agents for the good of the world.
It’s not a four-pointer. In fact, it is twice that. We are made to be in union with God, with self, with others, and with the world. Our sin cracked our relationships in each of those four relationships so we are “cracked” in our relationship with God, self, others, and the world. The gospel is the work of God to restore us — to heal us through exposure and transformation — so we will become the Eikons God meant us to be. When that happens, we will be holistically healed and will becomes “agents of embracing grace” with everything we encounter. We will become Eikons who glow with God’s presence because we are rightly related to God, self, others, and the world. It takes time, though, Emily. For some of us a long time. Some heal up quicker than others, but don’t kid yourself — this glowing is not easy stuff.
Now is this “offensive”? Before I answer, I say this: I know some people who are intent on making the gospel offensive because they think “shock talk” is the way to go; I know others who like the “offensiveness” theme because they are a bit offensive themselves. Others like the “offense” of the gospel because they like to get in people’s faces and tell others just how bad they really are, and that probably should warn us that they are angry. At one time I was of calling these kinds of “offerings” of the gospel “grace grinding.” In the guise of offering people grace, some people seem to want to grind others into the ground. None of this, though, is what the “offensiveness” of the gospel is really about.
What causes offense is us: we just don’t want to be told we are cracked, and we don’t naturally want to be healed — a little bit the way dogs resist the help of the vet — but somehow, somewhere down deep we know the healing is what we most need and what we most want. But it offends us to be told this. We’d rather go it alone. When we do walk away from that embracing grace, we find ourselves looking back to see if got it wrong. (Which we did.)
Having cleared this ground, yes, I do think the gospel “offends.” Just look back at the outline I gave you: How many of us — now tell yourself the truth here — want to be told that we are “cracked Eikons” or “comprehensively messed up” or (to use one biblical term) “sinners”? None of us. The true disclosure and exposure of who we are is usually not greeted with open arms; we resist such truth with stiff arms. (By the way, those who wallow in the cracks are missing the power of that grace, but that’s another letter.)
But, we can learn by God’s good graces that emerge from the life and cross and resurrection of Jesus, not to forget the gracing power of God’s Spirit, that this “bad” news is the gateway to the “good” news that God is at work to draw us to himself and to one another in order to be missional agents in this world. The oddest thing is that this bad news is the good news we want. The bad news that is good news is what our heart yearns for.
Personally, I’d rather talk about Jesus, summon people to follow him, and let his words do the offending. And he’s got plenty of offending words. So does Paul and the rest of the pastors who wrote the New Testament. The last thing we need to be is offensive people. I fear sometimes that offensive people are using the “offense of the gospel” to take their own problems and heat out on others. We’ve got a big enough challenge ahead of us, don’t you think?, to call others to follow Jesus that we don’t need to do any more damage than we’ve already done.
I look forward to hearing if this is what you think. Until then, Kris and I wish you our
Scot and Kris McKnight