We suggest that one of the reasons for our current eclipse of God among Protestants is that, by-and-large, we are so keyed into the theological-anthropological frequencies of a different era that we cannot seem to grasp, let alone name, the existential issues evident in our own time. Strangely enough, this blindness partly came from a reduction arising from Martin Luther’s profound struggle before God—his anfechtung—in the distinct theological context of the sixteenth century. (Anfechtung is the word Luther used when describing his own personal times of spiritual terror, despair, and religious crisis.)
Now to be sure, Luther was a very spiritual man living in medieval Europe, part of a culture that was enchanted by its immersion in all things God. Furthermore, the prevailing worldview was shaped by the long tradition of Christendom Europe, meaning the church and its symbols were present everywhere. A professor of the New Testament, Luther ended up experiencing an existential crisis as he grappled with Romans 1:16–17, which references God’s “righteousness” being revealed in the gospel of Jesus. But Luther could not work out how God’s righteousness could possibly be good news to an unrighteous sinner. Surely it meant that we were hopelessly lost because we could never rise to God’s level of righteousness. At the heart of his anfechtung was the terrifying feeling that God was ultimately going to judge and condemn the sinner—of which he felt the foremost.
Luther then rediscovered that Paul’s revelation in Romans was that righteousness was to be received as a gift of God’s grace, through personal faith—and boom!—the rest is history. It’s not too far-fetched to say that the whole Reformation was born out of the recovery of this single insight. Everything changed.
The problem was that this formulation of the gospel was so powerful in the context of the guilt-ridden medieval consciousness of the time, it soon became the only way that “the gospel” was formulated.31 It was as if the question of objective guilt before God was the only issue human beings ever deal with. In other words, “the gospel” was so reduced to only resolving human guilt that it inadvertently left so many other dimensions of the human condition untouched by the good news. And therein lies the problem we attempt to address: the evangelical gospel has become one-dimensional— it has for such a long time been minimized and narrowed to “the Romans Road,” “the Four Spiritual Laws,” “the Two Ways,” and the like.
Again, we don’t want you to hear what we are not saying. We do believe that humans are indeed desperately separated from a holy God and very much in need of God’s forgiveness; we do believe that Jesus died vicariously in order to reconcile and restore his creation before himself. These are absolutely vital dimensions of the good news of Jesus Christ. But what we are saying (throughout this entire book) is that this is not the only dimension of the gospel. As astonishing as forgiveness of personal sins is, God has done even more than that in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. The good news has relevance to every aspect of humanity’s brokenness, not just personal guilt before God.
The consequence seems obvious: if justification by faith is the only way we are allowed to articulate the good news, then in order to tell the story of Jesus to a group of people who don’t experience themselves as guilty-before-a-holy-God, we feel the obligation to make people feel bad about themselves before they can feel better. And so evangelicals (good news people?) come off as the tongue-clucking, finger-wagging moralizers that everyone seeks to avoid (the antithesis of good news people). Besides, when did we assume the role of the Holy Spirit? Is it not the Spirit’s task to convict people of sin and righteousness (John 16:8–11)? Our job is to announce and demonstrate good news in a bad news world. When we play the Pharisee, we become part of the bad news. God wants to forgive people of their sins and has already provided a way for that, but guilt need not always be the singular starting place in an individual’s life.
Deb Hirsch recounts hearing a speaker once pose the question, “What should be the first thing that can be said about any human being?” The overwhelming majority of the (Christian) audience answered by saying that people are first and foremost fallen sinners, capable of evil, and in need of salvation. The speaker then challenged their response and went on to explain that, while it is true that all have sinned and fallen short, there is still a more fundamental truth: each and every person is “like God”—we are all created in his image. This truth is the primary truth that precedes and qualifies the secondary truth—that we are indeed fallen sinners in need of redemption.
The story must always start at the beginning.
Christianity too often begins by emphasizing a problem (original sin) instead of beginning with the wonderful unity between creation and Creator (original blessing). We first remind you that you are “intrinsically disordered” or sinful—which then allows us to just happen to have the perfect solution. It is like the vacuum cleaner salesman first pouring dirt on your floor, so he can show you how well his little Hoover works. As if the meaning of the universe or creation could start with a foundational problem!
So often the evangelical culture falls into the trap of starting its proclamation of the gospel in Genesis 3 (original sin) rather than in Genesis 1 (original blessing). When this happens, the good news simply becomes about how we get rid of all that guilt and all that sin. But if we desire to start at the beginning (a simple proposal that aligns with any storytelling technique … “once upon a time”), then we must begin with Genesis 1. Humanity is created in the image of God and that creation was good and right until separation from God happened in Genesis 3. Then the good news becomes about how God brings his family back together and restores the world, both as they were intended. If we reduce the gospel by beginning with the problem, then the whole search for God becomes a negative problem-solving journey. And to those who are desperately searching for something more, reducing the good news to problem-solving and moralism presents itself as an exercise in futility.
In posts to come, we will explore how we can broaden the conversation beyond simply talking about guilt and sin. For now, we simply note that human beings have a much larger register of religious and existential need than just guilt before God, as real as that is. A holistic approach to God’s total and saving response to each and every one of these issues is far more expansive than our limited view has allowed.