Given for the Saints at Medicalodge, Neosho, MO, on 6/22/08.
"I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ" (Gal. 1:11-12).
The word "gospel" occurs some 94 times in the New Testament, and none in the Old, though Paul said that "God preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed'" (Gal. 3:8). What does the gospel mean to you? The dictionary defines it as "the teaching or revelation of Christ." It comes from an Old English term "godspel," god (good) + spel (news or story), which itself came from the Latin phrase, "bona annuntiatio" (good news). Gospel is also used as a synonym for truth: "There's no doubt about it. It's the gospel truth!" When I was growing up, we attended "gospel meetings," which believe me, were not very good news to the young, impressionable mind. Terrifying would be a better way to describe the threats of eternal hell fire and damnation for those who refused to "obey the gospel," by which was meant going forward during the invitation hymn. These meetings usually lasted a week; one dear old gospel preacher, who long ago graduated to glory, used to horrify me the last night of every meeting, with his own rendition of Isaiah 53, line by line, lash by lash, hammer blow by hammer blow as he dramatized the crucifixion. I would read something else in my Bible to try to drown out the gory and grisly details which he appeared to relish. To this day, I can scarcely bear to even read the scriptures telling what they did to my lovely Jesus, and the movie? Forget it. I received permission from the Lord to stay home!
We all have our own impressions of what the gospel means, but reading Barth's commentary on Romans nine, brought into focus for me what I've been speaking and writing about for some years now: the difference between what God did for us in Christ (Life in the Spirit), and what man must do for God (religion). I don't take myself very seriously, knowing that God has not called me to be a pastor, guru, or pope. However, I do take God VERY seriously, having asked Him to lead me into the Truth. Therefore, what the Spirit gives me, I write, realizing that since it is filtered through my mind, my life, and my impressions, it may be just for me, though others sometimes benefit. Karl Barth, however, is a Theologian's theologian, a scholar, a thinker, a passionate Bible translator and interpreter. So, when I finished his chapter nine, which parallels Paul's chapter nine of Romans, I told Lenny, Not that before God, his opinion is worth more than mine or anyone else's, but simply that I felt affirmed in what I have gotten from the Lord.
Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans (See Link at End) is not for everyone, because his is an intellectual, rather than an emotional approach, but it contains real gems, which I want to share. Speaking of the Living God, he wrote: "In the Gospel, in the Message of Salvation of Jesus Christ, this Hidden, Living, God has revealed Himself, as He is. Above and beyond the apparently infinite series of possibilities and visibilities in this world there breaks forth, like a flash of lightning, impossibility and invisibility, not as some separate, second, other thing, but as the Truth of God which is now hidden, as the Primal Origin to which all things are related... Because human life is temporal, finite, and passing to corruption, it is revealed in the Gospel that the glorious, triumphant, existential inevitability of the Kingdom of God cannot be hidden. It is made manifest that the knowledge of God, faith working through love, is presented to men as the possibility which, though realized at no particular moment in time, is, nevertheless, open to them at every moment."
What a grand description of the gospel: faith working through love to bring men to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. "The unknown God," as Barth often described men's concept of the divine, is made known in Christ Jesus our Lord, by the Holy Spirit, the same power which raised Christ from the dead. And, Paul said that the gospel he preached was not "something that man made up," but rather was received "by revelation," which I think is the only way anyone can receive the gospel. Only when God opens our eyes and ears and subsequently, our hearts, do we receive Christ by faith, not our faith, of course, but only through His faith by the revelation of God to us and for us. In spite of the efforts of men, well meaning though they certainly can be, we receive the gospel, the revelation or unveiling of Christ, which J. Louis Martyn referred to as "uncontingent grace!" What a liberating truth. The gospel is not contingent (dependent) upon our faith, our obedience, or our Bible study, but only upon God's power, for as Paul also confirmed, the gospel is "the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith" (Rom. 1:16-17). When the Spirit shined His light of Truth on this passage, Martin Luther was set free from the religious bondage that the Catholic Church had placed him in, and in acting on what He saw by the Spirit, Luther was used by God to change the course of church history. Without him, we'd all still be praying the rosary.
Undoubtedly, the church has a role in proclaiming the gospel, but what is it? Those of you who have been reading me for a while know that I have deep concerns about religion's role in our lives. In 2003, the Spirit pressed me to write a series called "Second Hand Religion" (See Link at End), because most of us have just adopted without question, the god of our fathers and mothers, their religious beliefs and practices. Only when God calls us out of our preconceived ideas, can we grow and flourish.
Barth asked this pregnant question: "Does the Church stand over against the Gospel as one point of view against another? Are we setting one company of men who think rightly over against another company who do not?
"Yes, undoubtedly we are. The Church confronts the Gospel as the last human possibility confronts the impossible possibility of God. The abyss which is here disclosed is like to none other. Here breaks out the veritable God-sickness: for the Church, situated on this side of the abyss which separates men from God, is the place where the eternity of revelation is transformed into a temporal, concrete, directly visible thing in this world. In the Church, the lightning from heaven becomes a slow-burning, earth made oven... In the Church, faith, hope, and love are directly possessed, and the Kingdom of God directly awaited, with the result that men band themselves together to inaugurate it, as though it were a THING which men could have and await and work for. To a greater or lesser extent, the Church is a vigorous and extensive attempt to humanize the divine, to bring it with in the sphere of the world of time and things, and to make it a practical 'something,' for the benefit of those who cannot live with the Living God, and yet cannot live without God. To sum up: the Church is the endeavor to make the incomprehensible and unavoidable WAY intelligible to men."
By this, Barth is NOT diminishing the church or suggesting that we can do without her, but is merely describing the tension between the righteousness of God and the self efforts of men. One reason some may have a problem with Barth's writing is that he deals with this tension in such a way that the reader is sometimes rocked back on his heels to ask, "Am I OK? Does God still love me?" I had that experience early in the book, but because Harry Fox has patiently spoon fed Barth to me over the past 20 years (and in fact, spoon feeds him still to the Churches of Christ), I have had the determination and grace to dig out what the man is saying, which can be summarized this way, "However, clearly and precisely the Gospel is preached, the divine incognito still remains. The pure, non-ecclesiastical Gospel is proclaimed by no human mouth... Men are not competent, even if they are gifted with tongues of fire, to speak of God otherwise than in a parable... The paradox of the final, despairing inadequacy of human speech as a medium for expressing the Truth is a parable of the absolute miracle of the Spirit."
Regarding the church, Barth asked, "Are we then to deduce that we should forget God, lay down our tools, and serve men in the Church, as though there were no Gospel? No, the right conclusion is that, remembering God, we should use our tools, proclaim the Gospel, and submit to the Church, because it is conformed to the Kingdom of God. We must not, because we are fully aware of the eternal opposition between the Gospel and the Church, hold ourselves aloof from the Church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it." End Quote.
For years, I have groaned about the very real failures of the Church, because it has been apparent to me that the extant, visible church seems to have caused as much grief as it has given relief; has been as much a source of pain and despair as it has given comfort; has been an instrument of spiritual dis-ease as much as it has purported to give life. Various family members have berated and condemned me for "trashing the church for whom Christ died," suggesting that I'll have to "give an account of this" on Judgment Day. It may seem like that at first glance, but nothing is further than the truth. My disappointment has been in the huge difference between how the Church presents itself to the world and the way it actually behaves toward those within it.
My failure was in looking at what is seen (temporary), rather than what is unseen (eternal). I confused the Church universal and triumphant which Paul described so gloriously and powerfully, with the pitiful shadow, the best man's religion has to offer, that exists on Earth today. The great gulf fixed between these two entities cannot be bridged, because God cannot be contained in the tabernacles of men! But lest we despair, Jesus said that He would build His church on the truth that He IS the Christ, the Son of the living God, and the "powers of death shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18).
Religious people are so proud of "their church," as though they died and gave their own blood to establish it. They have reduced the glorious gospel, the revelation of Christ Himself, to the rules and regulations to which their particular denomination subscribes. Worse, religion has transformed the gospel from the Truth of God in Christ, the POWER of God unto Salvation, into what man must do for God. Religion has degraded the living organism of believers, the ecclesia, into a powerless organization limited by the obedience and faithfulness of men.
That sounds like I have no hope, but in fact, my hope is alive and well because it is based on what God has done, is doing, and will do, NOT upon what man does, now or ever! Barth commented that all men are standing on the same step before the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:12). How that chafes the Pharisee who boasts in the sins he has not committed and takes refuge in the righteous deeds he has done; how that reduces the proud and lifts up the fallen. Truly, it is what Isaiah saw so long ago: "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken it" (Isa. 40:4-5).
A friend asked last week, "Just what IS this GOOD NEWS?" The actual GOOD news is that our journey is all of God, and nothing of us, so we get no credit, and of course, no blame either (Rom. 11:32). The GOSPEL, Barth said, is the unveiling of the "unknown God," but of course, once we try to explain it, organize it, or disseminate it, it ceases to be the gospel and becomes, you guessed it, the Church! However, Barth insisted that we cannot leave the church, because if we tried, we'd just make a bigger mess on our own. Therefore, we struggle with this terrible tension between God and man, works and grace, Life in the spirit and death in the flesh. It is in this glorious, sucking quagmire of man's supreme achievements that God finally shines through and we are saved from ourselves. All the struggles and tension were foreordained by God, for it is in His "Halt," that we hear, "Advance," and it is in His "NO," that we hear His "Yes" (Barth).
When Moses was pressing God to reveal Himself, God said, "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live" (Ex. 33:20). Moses was allowed to stand in the cleft of a rock, so that when God passed by, Moses would see His "back parts," but not his face (Ex. 33:21-23). We have not changed. We still seek to see God, to know Him. With man, this is impossible, but Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8). This, I believe, is not a commandment to be pure, but a promise that in Christ, we are reckoned to be pure even as He is pure. God is unknowable and undiscoverable by the efforts of men, but in Christ, He is unveiled, revealed, and glorified.
In my old age, I conclude that the extant Church is exactly where God has it for His own reasons; if He is not upset about it, why should I be? Harry Fox has observed that just as God reckons our faith to us for righteousness, even so, He does the same with the Church. God is healing us all as He conforms us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). No matter how cracked and damaged the mirror reflecting it is, the glory of God is so powerful that it WILL be seen, by God's grace and by His will!
Father, we praise You for sending us Jesus, our lovely Savior, brother and friend, and we thank You for the eternal Church which He established, to which we all belong. Shine through us, Father, to the people walking in darkness, that they may see You and live. In Christ, amen. Jan Antonsson
To Be Continued.....
Jan and Lenny Antonsson
17178 Highway 59, Neosho, MO 64850 (Snail Mail Address)
Second Hand Religion
Healing, or Stealing God's Glory?
Risky Business, Healing, Part II
The Royal Priesthood, Healing, Part III
Rest in the GIFT, Healing, Part IV
Restoring the Glory Land, Part V
Organizing the Church, Part VI
Victory Through Helplessness,Healing, Part VII
What Does Faith Have to do With It? Healing, Part VIII
The Death of Death, Healing, Part IX
The Death He Died, Healing, Part X
Freed From Sin, Healing Part XI
Money, the Kingdom, and Bifocal Vision, Healing, Part XII
Flesh, Spirit, & the New Man, Healing, Part XIII
The End of the Law, Healing, Part XV
The Divine Possibility, Healing, Part XVI
What Shall We do? Healing, Part XVII
The Tyranny of the Vegetable Eaters, Healing, Part XVIII
The Epistle to the Romans by Karl Barth
Harry Fox's Website
The Glory Road
This writing was uploaded to the web 06/14/08,
by Jan Antonsson, webmeister,
and last updated 11/19/08.