Writing a couple days ago about the call of the gospel involved expressing that the gospel call is urgent. It matters whether or not people hear the message of Christ, and whether or not those who hear believe; it matters because there is judgment to come, and where you stand in the day of judgment depends entirely on whether or not you are in Christ.
This is the perennial scandal of the Christian faith. True Christianity will always be scandalous to the world, though different aspects of the faith will be scandalous in different times and places and cultures. But the exclusivity of the gospel message is a perennial scandal, because it stands against every worldly ideology and religion, and because it is at the irreducible core of the Christian message: eternal life is found in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ alone. You have to place your faith in Him if you are to be saved.
This claim is denied not only by avowed secularists, but by some who claim to be Christians. I came upon the website of a liberal Episcopalian church in San Francisco, noteworthy (among other things) for how they use their sanctuary for a popular yoga program–the sentence “Colorful mats cover the labyrinth, the aisles and even the altar” has a certain resonance with 2 Kings 16. I saw that they had sermons online, audio and transcripts; I wanted to see what their preaching was like, but didn’t want to give it a lot of time. I needn’t have been concerned; my sampling suggests that, in keeping with typical liberal practice, their sermons range from fairly brief to very brief. Given their beliefs, brief is probably for the best.
So here is a sermon from “The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clements Young.” He’s the dean of the cathedral and has a Doctorate of Theology from Harvard, so no one can say I’ve chosen a straw man. His text is John 3:16-17…and if you say, ‘Why just through verse 17? …aha, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
John 3:16 is quite understandable a beloved passage, a one-verse encapsulation of the gospel. Dr. Young, in his short message, says a number of things, some of them good. But things get particularly suspicious about halfway through–manuscript page 3, that is–when he turns to examine Jesus’ reference to the bronze serpent, a story detailed in Numbers 21.
The Israelites were complaining against God, and the text says, “Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them” (Num. 21:6, NIV), but Dr. Young says “God allows poisonous snakes to come among them”; perhaps the change from God’s direct action to divine permission is unintentional. But stranger is Dr. Young’s assertion that “In both this exodus story and the Gospel of John sin is less a punishment from God than it is a self-destructive human choice.” Well, yes, the sin of the Israelites is a self-destructive choice–and if that’s all he meant, that’s one thing, but we’re still going to have to grapple with Romans 1–but the punishment from God is clearly present: they chose to grumble against God, but God sent the venomous snakes.
Dr. Young brings this back to John 3, which is good, and Jesus’ statement that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (Jn. 3:14). But this is Dr. Young’s comment:
“In this world which is poisoned by envy, greed, fear, betrayal and death – Jesus promises that we can be healed by experiencing him near to us in our suffering, and the hope that we have for the resurrection”.
Is that all Jesus promised, His nearness in our suffering? Why no mention of the atoning significance of His death upon the cross?
After this suspicious beating-about-the-bush about the wrath of God and atoning work of Christ, Dr. Young makes his last point quite clearly:
“My last point has to do with what my friend Matt Boulton calls the “anti-Gospel.” Gospel means good news and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is really good news for all people, not just Christians. It is the message that God does not condemn the world, but always reaches out to save us even when our choices have led us disastrously astray. But somehow many Christians warp Jesus’ words into an anti-gospel which is a message of contempt and exclusion.”
The Gospel, for Dr. Young, appears to be a message of universal salvation. Faith in Christ is not necessary, and those who say that it is are guilty of promoting “an anti-gospel which is a message of contempt and exclusion.” This is the rhetoric of the religious left, where ‘inclusion’ is good and ‘exclusion’ is bad, and where the other side is regarded as showing hatred or contempt. But how does this message square with the very text of Scripture being expounded? Dr. Young quotes John 3:16 in its entirety, so he has right there before him that the verse says “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It does not say that Christ gives life to everyone; it says He gives life to those who believe in Him.
How does Dr. Young deal with this? He doesn’t, really. He emphasizes that the text is saying this is a demonstration of the way God has shown His love:
“The Greek doesn’t mean to emphasize “how much” God loves us but instead shows us the character of God’s love, that God loves us in this way, through not even withholding his own son. The point is not that Jesus only saves the few who believe, but like the Israelites looking at the snake, everyone is healed by God through Jesus.”
Like the Israelites looking at the snake? But it wasn’t all of the Israelites who were healed by the bronze serpent–it was only those who looked at it. In the same way, it isn’t all people who are saved by Jesus, but only those who believe in Him. The parallel seems to work rather against Dr. Young than for him. Can he really justify such a shaky interpretation in the face of the clear teaching of the biblical text?
He can try. Here’s the clincher:
John confirms this interpretation and writes, “God did not send his son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3).
He’s quoting John 3:17, a wonderful verse about God’s love. Jesus came to save. God sent His Son to be our Savior. And, if this verse was all we had to work with, we might conclude that it teaches a universal salvation, regardless of whether people know Jesus or not.
But this verse doesn’t stand alone, and a basic principle of biblical interpretation is that verses must be interpreted in context. The verse before it, verse 16, says that it is those who believe who are saved. What about the verse that follows?
And this is why it is so interesting that Dr. Young stopped with verse 17. Now, I can’t read his mind. Maybe he forgot what verse 18 said. Maybe he just didn’t have time to bring it up. But it is awfully interesting that he didn’t mention the verse that says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (Jn. 3:18).
So we have an Old Testament parallel and two clear assertions that a response of faith is required in order to receive the life Christ offers, sandwiching the ambiguous verse that Dr. Young tries to use to nullify the clear message. It is overwhelmingly obvious that Dr. Young has misinterpreted the Scripture, and has done so in a way that shows either a remarkably careless disregard for the context or a deliberate desire to twist the message of the gospel.
He wants to do away with the exclusivity of the gospel. In the process, he has thrown out the urgency of the gospel, for a message of universal salvation is not a message that anyone needs to hear; and, if heard, it is a message that perfectly suits the individualistic self-determination of the (post)modern west, because it means that how you choose to live your life doesn’t really matter in the end.
Can Dr. Young’s own charge be reversed? Is he guilty of teaching an anti-gospel? I think so. Maybe he teaches that people should repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus, but he doesn’t preach that such is necessary in order to be forgiven and receive eternal life.
The true gospel is urgent, because it proclaims that God’s gracious offer of life is found exclusively in Jesus Christ, is received exclusively by faith in Jesus Christ. You need this gospel, and you need it now.
And you may have it, no matter who you are, no matter what you have done. Turn from your sins and place your trust in Jesus Christ, who died for your sins and rose from the dead to bring you life. Accept His mighty hand reaching down to draw you to Himself. Be cleansed, forgiven, made whole, adopted as a child of the Most High.
The time is now.