The Failure of ‘the Gospel’?

The gospel not only promises forgiveness, but also changes our heart. We are not the same people when we are ‘in Christ.’

Owning the label implies that we do not expect heart change. The thinking is that we can control our actions, but we can’t control who we are. But this strikes at the heart of the true gospel, which does not just promise forgiveness, but also changes our heart. We are not the same people when we are ‘in Christ.’

 

The second Revoice Conference is taking place June 5-8, 2019 in St. Louis – this time not hosted by a Presbyterian Church in America ( PCA) church, but in a neutral location — thanks to the action taken by the Missouri Presbytery for addressing the issue.  However, for many critics of Revoice the presbytery’s conclusions fell short in that, in regard to Memorial Presbyterian Church’s involvement, they “only found errors in poor judgment that originate from such things as imprudence and neglect in both the Pastor and the Church. They found nothing erroneous that ‘strikes at the vitals of religion’” (emphasis added). The reasons for this slap on the wrist, as far as I can discern, have to do with Revoice’s biblical condemnation of homosexual practice; however, their leaving intact, and even encouraging, LGBTQ+ identity, was less troubling in the presbytery’s view. This position seems to me very shortsighted and does not strike at the root of the matter – as though identity is less significant than action. Our hearts are our problem (Matt. 15:16-20).

In answer to Revoice, the God’s Voice Conference was held in Oklahoma City in February 2019. One speaker at the OKC conference had this to say about the difference between the two: “Here’s the difference between God’s Voice and Revoice. God’s Voice believes God can and does change people… Revoice has no power. There is no victory in Revoice. They have lost confidence in the power of Christ’s redemptive work” (Al Baker). There you have it in a nutshell. When we lose confidence in the power of the Gospel to change people, we find ourselves in quandaries like the ones Revoice and its proponents raise within the PCA.

I’m aware that I may be coming off as alarmist and that within the PCA (and the other denominations represented in Revoice) there are many pastors and leaders who do not support the Revoice platform. They are orthodox men who simply aim to faithfully preach the Gospel week after week. But I think when we find ourselves scratching our heads over how our churches have found room to question such basic truths, it’s time to back up and see what part we may, however inadvertently, be playing in the shift we see in our midst.

What I find nothing less than tragic is that in our circles there has been so much talk in recent years about “finding our identity in Christ,” and yet I find very few who can convincingly explain the significance of this mantra. Issues of identity are the plague of modern society – people desperately try to define their own identities and portray ‘who they are’ on social media, but it’s a lot of whistling in the dark. When their current identity isn’t working, they try on a new one. They simply don’t know what to do when all their choices have left them empty. This is exactly the point where the church should be stepping up and offering to a world groping in the dark, wondering who they are, the glorious freedom of finding our true identities in Christ. This is our opportunity, but I fear we are squandering it and, instead, find ourselves bogged down in the same struggles over identity.

We in the PCA need to examine ourselves to find where it is that we have been found wanting – and it is usually in our greatest strengths that we find our greatest weaknesses. We have ‘recovered’ the reformed doctrine of justification by faith apart from works, and we have been shouting it for decades now. This is great and glorious – we breathe a sigh of relief that we are free from the legalism of trying to earn salvation and favor with God by following rules. We glory in our justification and forgiveness of sins. We no longer look to our works, but to Christ, as our salvation. We are comforted to know that there is nothing we can bring to the table or do in order to please God. We can never get enough of this gospel.

But here is where I think this all goes wrong: Owning our own depravity and inability is what brings us to a place of trust in Christ alone for our justification. It is there that we initially find grace, so it seems like a good place to camp. But justification by its very nature is like turning a corner – when it happens, we are changed, the past is behind us, and we are heading in a new direction. We can never forget our justification, but it’s just not a process to be lived in; it is the experience of a moment. We either are justified or not. And once we are justified, the trajectory of our life changes and we are becoming “conformed to the image of Christ” (Rom. 8:29).

It would be like getting married and trying to live constantly in the wedding ceremony, always thinking of ourselves as single people amazed to be here in this moment. No, we say our vows, and nothing is ever the same again; we are now united to another person until death, and we spend the rest of our life in that relationship, not in the ‘I do’ moment.

In a more eternal and astounding way, justification opens the door to our new life ‘in Christ’ – and a whole new identity. We are no longer ‘in Adam.’ Now we are ‘in Christ.’ We have a new relationship, not just to Christ, but also to the Father, the Law, Sin, Death (more about these in later posts). We are new people living under a new ruler in a new kingdom. Just as the Cross is the dividing line of redemptive history, justification is our individual turning point — for the Christian, everything can be seen as BC or AD. These are the life-changing indicatives that I think our ‘gospel’ has been ignoring. Of course, no one is preaching that we are still ‘in Adam;’; we say that we are ‘in Christ’ as far as the benefits of justification and forgiveness are concerned, but we forget the fundamental change of heart that is the necessary consequence and continue to identify with the Old Man’s inability to please God or choose any spiritual good.

In light of this current view of the normal Christian life, when questions of LGBTQ+ identity are raised, it is only logical to entertain the notion that maybe this is ‘who I am.’ While we may recognize the actions as sinful, we do not find it wrong to take this expression of our sinful nature as our identity because, after all, we are all ‘sinners.’ Greg Johnson’s recent article in Christianity Today is an honest account of one person’s story with regard to same-sex attraction (SSA), gay identity, and how it all relates to his Christian faith. I admire his longstanding commitment to remain celibate while still struggling with sinful attractions and desires. He has chosen to identify as a ‘gay Christian,’ but others from a similar background reject ‘gay Christian’ as a category. Rosaria Butterfield has been staunch is her opposition to the label ‘gay Christian,’ which she considers an unbiblical category and singularly unhelpful in the Christian’s fight against sin.

Maybe it seems that the whole issue is just quibbling over words, but let me try to explain why this distinction of identity v. sin is so important:

First, making a category of ‘gay Christian’ seems to give this particular sin a status different from other sins – what about ‘pornography-addicted Christians’ or ‘vindictive Christians’ or even ‘racist Christians’? Hopefully, these strike us as ludicrous – so why would we be okay with ‘gay Christian’ if we really do consider homosexual practice sinful and something we are called to leave behind us as we grow in grace? Words are powerful and attaching ‘Christian’ seems to attempt to sanitize the ‘gay.’

Second, owning the label implies that we do not expect heart change. The thinking is that we can control our actions, but we can’t control who we are. But this strikes at the heart of the true gospel, which does not just promise forgiveness, but also changes our heart. We are not the same people when we are ‘in Christ.’ This is not to say that the patterns of sin and temptation disappear completely, but these impulses are no longer what define us – we are new creatures and need to learn to live in our new identity and be who we really are ‘in Christ.’ For some, like Rosaria, change comes in the form of marriage and family; for others, change means lifelong celibacy (which btw can be a great benefit in that a single person has the opportunity to ‘serve the Lord without distraction’ 1 Cor. 7:32-35)– both are godly expressions of loving and following God. And as with any other sin, while God is able to take away the desire in a moment, more often we go through a process of leaving it behind. Some sins pursue us throughout our lives — these are not called ‘identities;’ they are called ‘besetting sins’ in Heb. 12 – and we have to continually treat them with special caution, like a recovering alcoholic who may always have to avoid certain difficult situations. There is a difference between owning our sin patterns in order to resist them and owning them as our identity. And this is where our current ‘gospel’ has failed all of us.

Third, creating a category of Christian based on any particular sin creates a culture that tends to normalize that sin, leading first to tolerance and then endorsement of the lifestyle and actions the identity naturally tends toward. Rosaria has observed this tendency in ‘gay Christians’ to move from Side B to Side A because there is so little to restrain accepting the lifestyle and all it entails when you have already accepted the identity. Ideas have consequences, and this is just the logical outcome.

So to Greg Johnson and others like him, I encourage you to live in your new identity ‘in Christ’ and to be more and more conformed to the image of Christ – this is who you are, and it is glorious. You don’t have to hide things like your taste in decorating, fearful that it will raise people’s ‘gaydar.’ There is nothing intrinsically sinful in the type of chair you bought, so own that as a part of how God has created you in his image. When you face ‘the sin that so easily besets you,’ confess it and fight it (as we all must) with the help of others who understand your struggles and have your back. But please don’t think that this sin defines you. Believe the Gospel (all of it), and walk in newness of life, believing what God has to say about who you really are.

Sylvia Hill is a member of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Stillwater, Okla. This article is used with permission.

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