How we water down the Gospel
The accusation that some other group or person is “watering down the gospel” is an easy one to make. It’s an accusation I’ve heard many, many times over the years – and have even been on the receiving end of it a time or two. Often, when someone else is saying something that sounds a little too loving, a little too inclusive, or a little too _______, we quickly dismiss them by saying they’re “watering down the gospel”. I’ve heard the phrase slung a million times in self serving situations.
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But, then I got to thinking… do we (Christians in general) “water down” the gospel? Yes, I think we do. All of us. It’s human nature to find loopholes in something that seems difficult, and to conveniently discard something that we really don’t want applied to our personal experience. But, the truth is, we all water down the gospel. The problem comes, when we chronically see “the others” as the ones doing the watering down, instead of first looking at ourselves. I think Jesus told a story about that once… something about a beam vs. a splinter… yet, I digress.
I’ve recently been thinking about American Christianity as a whole, and the ways that our entire cultural expression of the message of Jesus gets watered down into a slow, manageable drip, instead of the knock-you-off-balance, raging fire hose that the gospel really is. In light of the time I’ve spent considering this question, here are 10 ways that I believe American Christianity waters down the Gospel of Jesus:
10. We water down the Gospel when we attempt to live it out in isolation, instead of in the context of community.
When we look at the story of Jesus, he very rarely did anything alone– except to go off and spend time with God, quietly in solitude. Everything else he did, was in the context of community. In fact, he dedicated his entire ministry to essentially being a small group leader– of just twelve friends. Everything else the movement accomplished, was because Jesus conducted his ministry in the context of small community.
In the life of the early Church, we see community as being key to their expression of the message of Jesus. The early Christians actually took the concept of community to a whole new level, essentially creating a type of Christian community that looked enough like socialism to make an American Evangelical cringe. Not only did they pray and share the Eucharist together, they actually shared all of their money, possessions, food… and rejected the concept of individual ownership (Acts 4:32).
When we live out the gospel in light of America’s concept of “rugged individualism” we miss the point that the gospel is designed to bring us into authentic community where we all depend on each other in healthy ways.
Trying to do this on my own? That’s watered down- the real gospel is lived out in community and healthy dependency with those committed to doing life together.
9. We water down the gospel when we make it about changing someone else, instead of first changing ourselves.
Ever met that person who looks at you during a sermon as if they’re thinking: “This part is something you should listen to”? It’s obnoxious.
When we see every passage, every lesson, every application as something that would be good for someone else, that’s a pretty good sign that we’re watering the gospel down to something that’s designed to challenge other people.
Yet, the gospel is beautifully balanced between individualism and collectivism, because it’s not just a challenge for them, or a challenge for the group, but is also designed to change me, and apply to myself, personally.
My preaching professor in seminary, Haddon Robinson, used to say: “Before a sermon speaks to the congregation, it must first speak to the pastor”, and I think this is a great way for everyone to look at the gospel– apply it to yourself, let it challenge yourself, and then- and only then- should you worry about applying it to someone else.
8. We water down the gospel when we make it sound like following Jesus is easy (Spoiler Alert.. it’s not!).
I think part of the reason why so many people walk away from following Jesus is because they’ve been tricked into thinking that this is actually something that’s easy.
Once, a man talked to Jesus about becoming a follower, and Jesus’ response to him was: “Sounds great- but just know, I’m homeless, and that might make you homeless too.” (Mt 8:20)
Following Jesus isn’t easy… this is hard stuff. It will require massive sacrifice (something I wrote about here), requires the adaptation of a radical worldview, and will usually lead you not to riches and fame, but to unending, unrecognized, unpopular, hard work.
And, if that’s not real enough for you, know this: if you decide to follow Jesus, you’re actually going to fail at it– every day, for the rest of your life. It is that hard.
When we water the Gospel of Jesus down, people mistakenly think this is an easy thing to do, an easy life choice… but, it’s not. Yes, following Jesus was the best decision I’ve ever made– but it was also the decision which has come at the highest price to me.
7. We water down the gospel when we exclude people.
When I look at the life of Jesus, one of the things that I find most attractive is that everyone wanted to hang out with him. It didn’t matter what social background they came from, what gender they were, what sins they struggled with… everyone just craved time with him.
One of my hopes for the afterlife is that God will sit us all down, give us a giant tub of popcorn, and let us watch a movie that’s 33 years long– because I just want to sit and watch the life of Jesus. The fact that people of all walks of life felt loved and accepted by him tells me that there is so much more to the story than what got recorded in scripture (a fact that John ends his gospel with in Jn 21:25). I want to see it… all of it. I just want to know more about the loving, inclusive personality of Jesus.
However, we often exclude others which is contrary to the life of Jesus… a behavior which waters down the Gospel to something that’s for us, and not them (at least not until they change and become more like us). Yet, I don’t find any of that in scripture… instead, I find a Jesus that invites everyone into relationship FIRST, and invites everyone to experience his love, FIRST.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were consistently offended with how inclusive Jesus was, because they believed a watered down version where God’s guest list was extremely exclusive and limited.
Any version of Jesus that doesn’t start with authentic, loving inclusiveness, is a watered down version.
6. We water down the gospel when we tell people it’s clear and simple.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing clear and simple about this… it’s actually quite complex.
Jesus used to teach in complex and obscure parables, something that frustrated even his inner circle. Often, they can be found frustrated that it’s not more simplified. In fact, in his final teaching the disciples let out a collective sigh, and said: “finally you’re talking plainly with us!”
I remember in 2008 when I left for Seminary at Gordon-Conwell, I thought that going to seminary would make the Bible more black-and-white. Yet, after two Master’s and part way into my doctorate, things become a lot more gray the deeper I go. And, that’s okay. I actually think Jesus wanted his message to be complex enough that we spent our lives wrestling with it.
It’s not clear and simple, but complex. The message of Jesus is something that you could spend a lifetime wrestling with, yet never fully wrap your head around it. It is really THAT radical (and I’ve learned to love it, exactly for this reason).
We water it down when we try to remove the complexity, and mystery (see Mark 4) of some aspects of it. Just let it be what it is– minus the extra water designed to remove tension that God actually wants us to experience.
5. We water down the Gospel when we eliminate the centrality of social justice.
The act of “doing justice”, as the prophet Micah references, is hard and sacrificial work. Yet, the cause of justice was extremely important to Jesus, and became a hallmark of the early church.
In Mathew 23:23 Jesus goes off on the conservative religious leaders, and tells them that while they seem to value keeping small rules, they are missing the “more important” part of the law, which is justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
However, the idea of “social justice” is offensive in much of Western Christianity, which tends to value wealth and individualism. Glen Beck famously told his listeners to run from any church that had the term “social justice” on their website.
Similarly, the concept of “mercy” offends ones senses, and doesn’t fit within a Western, guilt vs. innocents oriented culture. Giving a murderer mercy instead of death? It offends the senses. But, Jesus is crazy like that.
I love it.
I’m pretty sure that if Jesus came to America, he’d go off on us for the same thing– because when we focus on small rules, and resist or ignore the larger need for forms of justice in society (restorative justice, economic justice, etc.)… we have watered down the gospel and missed the most important part (Jesus’ phrase, not mine), just like the leaders in Matthew 23.
4. We water down the gospel when we explain away the whole nonviolent love of enemies part.
What if Jesus actually meant it when he said: “you have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye’ but I tell you to love your enemies”?
What if he meant it when he said: “put away your sword”, “don’t respond in-kind to an evildoer”, and “he who is without sin is free to cast the first stone”?
If there’s anything we know for sure about Jesus, it’s that he taught/practiced a radical, non-violent love of enemies, and that he invites us to do the same. Instead of picking up a weapon, Jesus actually says that in order to follow him, we will have to pick up a “cross”– a symbol of radical, nonviolent love of enemies if there ever was one.
Yet, we have a way of watering those teachings down so that they don’t apply to us, or our country. We start with small loopholes, which in time grow bigger and bigger. We’re able to water it down to the point that ever expanding military budgets are embraced and supported by Christians, the pro-gun movement becomes a championed movement of Christians, and that preemptive war is taught and encouraged by evangelical leaders (as it was after 9/11).
Once we start finding small loopholes in the command to nonviolently love our enemies, those loopholes get bigger and bigger… until we are able to safely drive tanks and fly drones through them, with little affect on our conscience.
At that point, we need to continue watering it down, because there’s a lot of blood we need to wash away.
3. We water down the gospel when we over emphasis sins rarely mentioned in scripture, while conveniently neglecting the ones that are talked about constantly.
In my lifetime, I think I’ve heard hundreds of sermons that focused on preaching against issues that oftentimes are rarely and obscurely mentioned in scripture. Sometimes, the issue isn’t even mentioned in scripture at all, yet it gets so much airplay you’d think there were a whole book on it. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t talk about those, but should they over shadow the sins that seem to be mentioned over and over and over again?
The top two sins spoken against in scripture are idolatry and greed- sins that don’t often make the playlist in many churches today. Honestly, I rarely hear sermons on either of those topics. Maybe idolatry, but definitely NOT greed.
hen’s the last time you heard a sermon condemning the wealthy who neglect the poor? That’s talked about all the time in the Bible, yet I don’t hear that message in many American churches. When’s the last time you heard a preacher condemn anti-immigrant attitudes? The Bible I read sure does talk a lot about the way we should love immigrants.
I just can’t figure out why we’d preach so often, and build entire ministries against, sins that might be referenced six or seven times– yet we never preach about the sins that are condemned hundreds of times.
I think we’re watering down the gospel so that other people’s sins appear to be worse than our own sins. Your sins? Well, you get a concentrated version. My sins? Watered down, please.
2. We water down the gospel when we exclusively use the concept of “penal substitution” to explain the Gospel.
Many of us grow up believing that the penal substitution metaphor for explaining the gospel is the gospel. It goes something like this:
You broke the law, which made God angry. Jesus paid your fine by taking God’s wrath in your place. Since Jesus paid your fine, you can be set free.
However, the penal substitution view of the atonement, is just a small glimpse of the cross– and in isolation, is a watered down version that reduces the cross to an individual transaction.
The “classic” view of the atonement is called “Christus Victor” and is a bigger way of understanding the cross. With the classic view, it is understood that Jesus was reconciling all of creation and freeing it from the works of the Devil. Within the classic view, yes– Jesus was reconciling me, but he was also reconciling everything else he made too.
This has big implications: in the watered down version of the gospel, it’s all about reconciling individual people. However, when we look at the classic view, we find out that God not only wants to reconcile people, but that he also wants to reconcile creation (environment), broken social systems, whole communities… and that means, my job as a “minister of reconciliation” is to get busy– not just reconciling people, but reconciling everything else too.
If you’ve only understood the gospel in light of the concept of “penal substitution”, let me just tell you that the Gospel is way, way bigger than you’ve ever realized.
And, so is your part in that.
When we reduce the magnitude and beauty of what Christ did on the cross to an individualistic, legal transaction– and little more– we’ve watered it down to the point where we can’t taste the depths of its magnificent flavor.
1. We water down the Gospel when we invite people to trust Jesus for the afterlife… but not this life. Flowing from number 2, when we exclusively use the Penal Substitution metaphor for explaining the cross, we end up focusing on getting people to trust in Jesus for their “eternal life” later, but fail to invite them into the eternal life that they can experience right now.
Maybe I’m just thinking big here, but I’d like to see people trust Jesus for the here-and-now. Maybe I’m just weak, but I need a Jesus who can help me in the here-and-now.
I want to see people trusting Jesus with their finances, their jobs, their families, their personal safety, and everything else.
And, Jesus is good for all those things too. A Jesus that can save me later, but not now?
That’s just a watered down version.
Benjamin L. Corey is a theologian, writer, and commentator. He writes a blog named Formerly Fundie, and has written for Sojourners and has served as a Religious Commentator for Huffington Post Live.