Is there more than one?
Last week my Sunday school teacher used the term the actual Gospel, and it yelled, “Hey, I’m a title!” Titles do that. After class I told my teacher I was stealing, uh, borrowing it. I placed it at the top of the “things to write about” pile in my head and went to church.
I wondered why my teacher felt the need to use this idiom. He said it in reference to what's available in the wide world of Western Christianity. What American seekers of all things Godly are apt to find, or not find, when they walk into a church.
"We need to make sure we're giving people the actual Gospel," he told us.
Was he lumping his students into the church of the itching ears the Bible warns about? Did he think we might have trouble distinguishing the real thing from the counterfeit? Would we settle for something soft and comfortable? Diluted? I scratched my ears and shook my head.
Now, when I watch a TV preacher or pick up the latest bestselling self-improvement book, I expect to hear the truth, yet I sometimes find myself disappointed. Sorry, but I don’t want to learn how to be a better Christian. Well…yes, I do. But not from somebody who’s got a formula for success. As far as doing all the things Christians are supposed to do and getting all the things Christians are supposed to get, who came up with that list?
Celebrity Christians aside, when I walk into a sanctuary I expect I will hear the actual Gospel. But my teacher brought up the fact that many churches in the post-modern, post-Christian, totally relevant new world I so easily forget about are filling itching ears with facsimile gospels, just like the Old Book said they would.
What I hear at church on a regular basis seems quite the opposite of telling people what they want to hear. A few weeks ago I heard a comment that maybe we can be a little tough with the Gospel by telling people they need Christ because they’re sinners. My pastor would say something like dirty, vile, rotten sinners. But when I hear that, I don’t take offense. It makes me really, really happy. No, grateful. Not just grateful. Free. And freedom is what keeps me coming back for more.
The Gospel—there is none but the actual—is not about telling somebody they’re so loved, so perfect just the way they are that God can’t take His adoring gaze off them. And it’s not about telling people they’re so up to their necks in evil nastiness that God can’t stand the sight of them. It’s about God being so good and loving and forgiving that He desires to rescue us. God liberated me despite the depth of my sin, but He also disregarded the general goodness that might leak out of me before my death. Am I rotten? Yes. Wonderfully made in God’s image? Yes. That’s why He rescued me.
So how does that add up to freedom? Because my sin has let me go. It’s powerless. Because my goodness has let me go. It’s powerless. Don’t tell me I can sin less by being good. Don’t tell me I can improve my goodness by sinning less. If I’m good it’s because I’m forever bound to His goodness. If I’m escaping the sin that still calls my name it’s because I’m eternally bound to His righteousness. If all that being bound sounds like the opposite of freedom, then you don’t understand grace. If your itching ears entice you to forget about sin, to set your own moral gauge because God just wants you to be a good person, then you don’t know the actual Gospel.
If you're under the impression you're too good for Hell, find a new church. If somebody’s harping on your vile, corrupt, evil self without telling you how to get free, then you’re getting suckered. Find a new church. But if you’re hearing that you’re vile, corrupt, and evil and somebody’s got to pay for it, keep listening. If it's the actual Gospel, you're about to find out who paid the price of your freedom.
Spoiler alert: It wasn’t you.