A Response to “Jesus is the Gospel!”, Part 1

Recently, Christianity Today included an article on the recent controversy within Young Life regarding a paper written by Jeff McSwain and the ministry’s formulation of gospel non-negotiables. It seems that the area director and a good many of the staff in Durham/Chapel Hill resigned because of the disagreement. You can read the CT article here. You can read Jeff McSwain’s paper here, and you can read the Young Life Statement here.

After reading the paper, here are my thoughts. If I’m wacked or my church history isn’t what it should be, would somebody tell me?

1. Not a bad place to start.
“Is it possible that we could clearly and faithfully preach a Christ-centered gospel without the penal/legal formula and the bridge illustration paradigm?” (ref. p.2)

What seems to be behind some of McSwain’s thinking is all the debate in the Emergent Church circles on penal substitutionary atonement. Though I am not sympathetic with arguments against the centrality of justification by faith in the propitiation which Jesus Christ has worked in his own’s behalf, McSwain’s concern about the manner in which the gospel is being presented and the subsequent confusion has some merit. In particular, I believe Dr. Timothy Keller and others have done great work on critiquing gospel presentation models.

Keller notes two current models of gospel presentation: gospel is forgiveness and gospel is freedom. Our increasingly secular and irreligious culture finds the gospel as forgiveness increasingly irrelevant because the starting presupposition: “there’s a God and he has rules” is not believed. To try and convince people who don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong that there’s forgiveness offered for their sins is incredibly difficult. However, there is another means to communicate our sin and Christ’s provision.

Keller suggests that our gospel approach should follow a “gospel is freedom” model. The gospel is freedom says that sin is slavery. (Slavery is naturally repulsive to a culture who values freedom, autonomy, and choice and is consumeristic and independent), Keller writes, “…the way to show more deeply secularized persons their need for the gospel is by saying, “your sin makes you a slave! You are actually being religious, though you don’t know it — trying to be righteous in a destructive way.” (Slavery is the biggest nightmare of the “choice–worshipper”. We say, “you are not really in control” so they are threatened). This approach creates anxiety and relieves it by showing how Christ redeems us (lit. “ransoms us from slavery”), liberates us.

2. Nomenclature.
McSwain uses labeling which inclines the reader to prejudice. The labels he gives the model he espouses: the “Trinitarian/Incarnational Model” allows him to take the generous orthodox position while the term “Legal/Separation Model” implies a litigious, restrictive and ungracious position. Whether intentional or not it’s an old straw-man’s trick.

3. Bad historical exposition with heterodox conclusions.
In his paper, McSwain writes the following,
“It stands in drastic conflict with orthodox Christology regarding the two natures of Christ. “The Church Fathers who formulated the creeds were adamant in insisting that God the Son assumed a sinful human nature in the incarnation. To them, the incarnation itself exploded any so called separation of divinity and impurity. Against Nestorian heresy, the Church in the year 451 came down squarely on Biblical testimony that Jesus Christ is two natures but one person. The one person aspect is in critical view here, because it keeps us from saying Christ’s divine nature and sinful nature were just two hermetically sealed natures pasted together. Nestorianism was an effort to protect the purity of the divine nature of Christ by separating it out from the human nature. Instead of saying “the human nature of Christ became sin, or “the human nature of Christ died,” we can say with more orthodox correctness that God became sin, and God died. We must recognize that when we say Jesus Christ is 100% God and 100% man, we do not mean that he is made up of two 100%’s glued together we mean that he is wholly man “like us in every way” and at the same time wholly God. “Amazing Love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, wouldst die for me?” (p. 6)
Problematically for McSwain is that he appears to be purporting heterodoxy rather than orthodoxy. The council he notes in 451 AD took place in Chaledon in response to the monophysite heresy and sought to formulate a position on the relationship in Christ’s person between his humanity and divinity. The creed which contains the sign of Chalcedon is attested to by all orthodox churches. Chalcedon states that we confess, “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence….” What this means is that the attributes of each nature may be attributed to the person, however, one does not confuse the attributes with the two natures. So, though I appreciate what Charles Wesley wrote, when he exclaimed in wonder and praise of the gospel that “my God wouldst die for me.” He was in error in the use of his language. God cannot die. Though it is true that Jesus can die, that Jesus is God, and that Jesus did die. God die? No, he cannot die. And so the assertion “that God became sin and God died” falls outside of orthodoxy and is exactly the opposite of the intent of the formers of Chalcedon who insisted that the two natures were without confusion, change, division, or separation. God did not become sin, nor did he die. Jesus, however, did and this is what we proclaim.
Prior to his misunderstanding of the creedal formula, McSwain states that the church fathers asserted “that God the Son assumed a sinful human nature.” Roundly, let it be said, they did not and he did not. Christ took on our humanity and came in the flesh but he knew no sin. That “Jesus became sin for us” is not in an ontological sense but in a positional sense in that he bore its consequential condemnation upon the cross and so removed it. Additionally, the language “sinful human nature” which (aside from being an unbelievably careless statement and heretical) sounds ironically Gnostic as if all flesh (that is physical bodies) is sinful rather than the nature which has been corrupted by our having been born in Adam.

To be continued…

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