What is the gospel?

It has occurred to me that the gospel – the Christian “good news” – has changed over the centuries, so that what many call the gospel today is not necessarily what the authors of the Bible had in mind. One of the things that has stood out for me over the years is that Jesus did not present today’s gospel. He never had an altar call, he didn’t baptize anyone, he only called for a handful of people to follow him, and sometimes he sent them away. Even when he healed some people, he told them not to tell anyone!

So why are we so focused on getting the gospel right? As a Lutheran, I was never trained to “witness” or “lead someone to Christ,” so when I got involved with a bunch of evangelicals I was quite intimidated by the whole thing. It just seemed so complicated. The Four Spiritual Laws, the “Roman Road,” “praying the prayer,” all seemed so regimented. What if I didn’t do it right? After all, people’s souls were at stake!

Now, I realize that this was all a kind of holy superstition, not based at all upon the Good News that Jesus preached (or the Lutherans, for that matter). Jesus even said, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” (Matthew 13:13). Not the methodology recommended by evangelists today. Did any of the people who heard Jesus speak ever die without accepting him as their personal savior? I imagine so. Did the thief on the cross understand the gospel? I doubt it. So what exactly is the good news that Jesus preached, and what are its implications?

Things have, of course, changed since then. Jesus died and rose again, and that changes a lot. But what about the gospel message? Has the essence of that changed? Was it supposed to change? And what are the essentials of the gospel (in other words, what do people have to believe in order to be saved)?

This is what I will try to explore in the coming days, starting with the earliest version of the good news – that proclaimed by the angels – going through the Bible and hopefully down through history to see how we got where we are. It should be an interesting journey; for me, anyway.

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Universal Salvation and Free Will

One of the questions that often comes up when discussing universal salvation – that is, the predestination of everyone for salvation – is that of free will: Does being saved without your permission, or even against your will, overrule the individual’s free will? The quick and obvious answer would appear to be “of course it does.” But does it really? Or could predestination actually be compatible with free will?

The problem of free will

The whole concept of free will seems a bit overblown in my opinion. First, we have to accept the reality of the universe in which we live and the reality of our existence. Did anyone have a choice as to where or when they would be born? Are you proud to be an American (or anything else) because you chose to be born where you were, or are you simply proud of an accident of birth? Personally, I don’t recall being asked when I wanted to be born, or to which parents. Considering that I’m diabetic, I think I would have chosen better genes.

And what about life? How much of our lives are due to things outside of our control? Would it be your free will to be injured in a car accident that was not your fault, or any number of other calamities that have befallen you due to things outside of your control? Where is the free will in that? Then, of course, there’s the problem of death. Most of us won’t have any say whatsoever about when or how we’ll die. Our whole lives are subject to the wills of others, or to seemingly random acts of life.

Certainly, we have a certain amount of free will within the above constraints. Most of us can choose various paths for our lives, including education, what kind of jobs we get, who we marry, what kind of car we drive, whether we’re Democrat or Republican, and so on. I don’t believe any of these things are predestined for us (even who we’ll marry). We are free to make any number of decisions, good or bad, and hopefully we learn from the past and improve our lives as we go on. But at some point, our ability to make decisions comes to an end, and we’re faced with the possibility of eternal salvation. Do we have a say in that?


If we were discussing Calvinist-style predestination, where God chooses individuals to save (and chooses those who don’t get saved), then we may have an argument that predestination takes away free will of the individual. But you could always argue that God only predestines those for salvation who would make the right choice anyway. It gets a bit stretched, I think.  Fortunately, we are not talking about this sort of predestination.

Let’s look at predestination from more of a cosmic viewpoint: God chooses to save the whole of creation. In other words, creation itself is predestined to be saved. We make whatever free will choices we make, but Jesus comes to defeat sin and death, and as a result the whole universe is redeemed.

Think of it as passengers on a plane. The passengers don’t know it, but the plane will crash unless God intervenes. God chooses to save the plane, saving all the passengers on board, and it lands on schedule, just like it was predestined to. I know, it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea. The universe was always predestined to be restored and reconciled to God, and we were born into this flawed system that is destined to be fixed.  We were born into a fallen universe and will just happen to benefit from its salvation as residents of this universe.


I can still hear people questioning whether God would save someone against their will, or raising the question of whether one is free to resist God’s love. CS Lewis in The Great Divorce suggests that one can resist God’s love. But this raises another issue: what would be the cause of someone wanting to resist God’s love?

The answer is undoubtedly sin, which is the underlying cause of selfishness, bitterness, etc., etc. The fact that someone’s sin hangs on to someone for eternity suggests to me that sin is not yet totally defeated, something that I have a hard time with. If sin is totally defeated, along with death (the final enemy to be defeated), then it suggests that all become totally sinless, removing any reason for rejecting God’s love. This would not be quashing free will, but removing the root cause for choosing evil (which would no longer exist).

Bottom line, I can’t see where universal reconciliation in any way removes free will, to the extent that we have free will. There are obviously limitations to our free will—for example, we cannot choose to live forever. But within these limitations our free will is alive and well. 

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The Errors of Augustine

There are those who think Augustine was the most brilliant thinker of the Christian Church. He was at least imaginative, creating a lot of doctrines that have misdirected the Western Church for centuries. Allow me to explain just a few.

The Trinity

Before Augustine wrote his book on the Trinity in the early 5th century, the Church had already formulated their statement on the Trinity, set forth in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which stated simply that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,” as Jesus had told his disciples (“I will ask my Father and he will send you another comforter”). Augustine figured as Jesus and the Father were as one, that is, co-equal, the Holy Spirit should proceed from both the Father and the Son, making the HS a touch lower in stature than the Father and Jesus. This language eventually found its way into the Western version of the Creed, which in large part caused the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western branches of the Church. It may seem to be a silly little thing, but it is not, as it deals with the nature of God, and is still a point of contention today.

Original Sin

So, original sin was another invention of Augustine. Because sin entered the world through Adam, Augustine concluded that sin had become more or less genetic, being passed down from generation to generation through sex. Another way of looking at it is that original sin was the first STD. Sex, therefore, was evil because it spread sin (but God made allowances for sex in marriage otherwise there’d be no children). So, all children are born sinful, carrying not only Adam’s sin but full-on guilt as well.

Justice and Wrath and Death, oh my…

Because of this original sin, it is by “divine justice” that all humanity was handed over to the power of Satan. It is through God’s wrath that we are all subjects to the kingdom of Satan, who also has control over death, the punishment for sin.

Grace and Predestination

Augustine defined grace as “unmerited favor,” which was necessary for the forgiveness of both original and subsequent sin, and deliverance from the power of Satan. This grace was acquired through baptism and communion; however, this was not a guarantee of salvation. Whether or not you were saved depended on God’s choice alone regardless of one’s own desire to be saved. This, as it so happens, was also a belief of the Manicheans (a philosophy that Augustine had held prior to becoming Christian).

In Closing

Of course, everything is far more complicated than I have set forth here as Augustine discusses the balance of power between Satan and God and why Jesus had to die. His thinking laid much of the groundwork for the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and so on. As I have said above, all of this thinking started in the 5th / 6th Century–that is, nearly 500 years after Jesus lived, and does not reflect the thinking of the earlier church, or of the Eastern church today.

Augustine’s thinking changed two major things: One is how we view God. Is God subject to his own justice, or is he primarily a God of love? The second is how we view man, as either innately evil and subject to God’s wrath, or created in God’s image with a destiny to become Christlike. These, to me, are major direction changes to Christianity, and by the time we get to Calvinism, we have what is in essence an entirely new religion.

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The Importance of Good Theology

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