A Christless Cross and a Crossless Gospel



In the mid-1980’s, I bumped into a college friend I hadn’t seen for a few years.  He worked in an inner-city church with multi-lingual immigrants.  He had an excellent ministry in may ways, and I was a little jealous.  As my friend described the dysfunction and poverty of the people he served–especially the kids–my heart sank.  I asked, “So what do you have to give these kids?”  When I got his answer, I wished I hadn’t asked.

He said, “Well, Bill, I really don’t have anything to give them except myself.”

My heart sank.  I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought WHO WANTS YOU?  What good are you?  You’re going to leave them someday!  You’re going to move or die!  Then what do they have?  Fond memories? Is that why God called you here?

Sharing the gospel means more than hugging a kid.  And I served full-time as a children’s and youth pastor for almost eight years, in the city of Chicago, so I have a little street cred on this issue.  I planted a church in Chicago and served with wonderful people for 16 years.  The people in our church ran a food pantry (the biggest one in our part of town), a clothing center (pressed and ironed and given free in the name of Jesus), and a ministry to homeless people on Chicago’s lower Wacker Drive, where people lived in cardboard boxes and people from our church brought them food, shared Christ, and sang and prayed.  I’ve planted an urban church, eaten at soup kitchens, spoken at women’s shelters (and played piano poorly there), prayed and served and slept overnight at a mission, and ran an urban high school group.  This isn’t about boasting… it’s about forestalling the criticism that I don’t care about “social ministry.”  I do.  But, as my urban-pastor friend, George Rice, once said, “Social ministry only gives your gospel ministry credibility.”  And, as my urban-pastor friend, Jimcrossceltic.jpgQueen, said, “I don’t care how many people you feed, shelter, or clothe, if you’re not getting people saved, you’re not Christian.” AMEN!!!

I am getting jittery about some developments I see, especially among a generation of Christians raised with post-modern… uhhh… let us call it “mega-flexibility.”  I speak of one branch only of the emerging church (new school theology)–the other branch I really like (new school methodology).

I know, I sound like an angry old guy, ranting. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to be the guy who’s always complaining about something.  I want a positive ministry. I want to build up and encourage. I do have a tolerance for a broad spectrum of evangelical opinion. I can work with and love people I disagree with. I’ve done it all my ministry years. So please take this critique as from a brother who sees friends he loves steering off course–perhaps without even realizing it.

Here are the symptoms of “Mega-flexibility”

  1. Disdain for personal evangelism because you have an “agenda” or an “ulterior motive” in your relationships.  The evangelistic motive poisons the well, and makes lost people doubt your sincerity, they say, so you shouldn’t make it your goal to get people saved.  “Just love them.”But isn’t this a Christless gospel?  Doesn’t this scrape across the grain of Paul’s declaration “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16, NKJV)?  And doesn’t “Just love them” sound like Oprah or Deepak Chopra or whatever guru is out there?I have many wonderful and warm friendships.  I try to be loyal to my friends, and expect them to be loyal to me.  Isn’t Jesus my friend too?  Should I keep him under wraps?  I have never met a self-respecting evangelical who wants to cram Jesus down somebody’s throat.  Yes, it happens in Starbucks and in so-called intrusional evangelism.  I get that.  I’m not talking about that though.  I’m talking about Christians not communicating Jesus and his saving love WITH THEIR WORDS, the much overused St Francis quote notwithstanding.
  2. A fondness for the saying, “It’s not our job to get people saved.”  In context this phrase means, don’t cram Jesus down people’s throats, which we all agree with.  But it goes deeper.  It also means don’t enter relationships with the idea of leading a person to Christ.  This represents a departure from generations of evangelical faith.  The problem with the statement is called equivocation.  Equivocation is what happens when you use the same words with two or more different meanings.  It’s a slippery way to communicate. Pastors who say, “It’s not our job to get people saved” are using the phrase in two different ways (equivocally), and if they is called on it, they can retreat to whichever meaning suits the need at hand. Equivocation. Don’t fall for it. Here’s what I mean…Meaning 1:  It’s not our job to get people saved… because only God can save people.  Only God can redeem and forgive.  You and I have not died for anybody’s sins, and we’re not the Savior. Meaning 1 merits a big Amen, but that’s not what most young hearers of this line will think. They will think…
    Meaning 2:  It’s not our job to get people saved… because we shouldn’t be out there talking about Jesus because Jesus turns people off and we should just love them and let them see our love and that will save them… and so you don’t have to, indeed you shouldn’t bring up Jesus, and certainly not his saving work on the Cross… [some even go this far]  and people are saved by love anyway, and if they’re sincere, they’ll maybe go to heaven…  I wonder how far this train of thought will go before we’ve all become universalists.  

    Look, friends talk about friends, right?  If I’m your friend, over time, you’ll discover that I’m also friends with Dave and Dale and Jim and Gail and whoever else.  It’s natural.  It’s normal.  

    Well, I’m friends with Jesus.  Should I lock him in a closet?  Isn’t it unhealthy to hide Friend A from Friend B?  Sorry, I won’t do that.  If you are going to be in relationship with me, you will hear about my friend, Jesus.  Not in a rude, obnoxious, or preachy way (unless I’m preaching). But in a natural way, as part of my life. Doesn’t it seem disloyal to actually suppress Jesus?  To hide him?  To not speak of his love and sacrifice?  It’s not natural, if you ask me.

    And I’m not talking about Jesus this, Jesus that, Jesus everything… Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.  That’s weird too.  I’m talking about a friend who helps me through every day, and it’s just normal to express that.  A friend whose death gave me life and heaven.  It’s natural to express that.

  3. A redefinition of Jesus’ death… This is the part that makes me saddest and maddest.  To use theological terms, I see a trend away from Substitutionary Atonement and toward the Moral Example Theory of the Atonement.  The Moral Example theory states that the Cross is the supreme expression of love. Jesus didn’t die to pay for our sins; he died to show us the extent of the love we must have for one another. And so the good news we Christians have is not so much about a once for all Savior who died in place of us sinners;  it is rather the good news of our self-sacrificing love for others, especially “the least of these.”This posits something the Church has routinely rejected:  A Christless Cross.  A concept of Cross that centers on US instead of HIM.  Ouch.  So we say thing like, “All I have to give them is myself.”When we should be giving them the gospel, which is so clearly defined as Christ-centered and Subsitutionary:
    Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:1-4, NKJV). 

    Do a study on the Greek construction of “for our sins” and you will discover that the preposition “huper” plus the genitive “sins” indicates the idea of substitution.  Christ died as substitute for our sins.  That’s the idea.  And that’s the gospel.  Any other theory of the atonement must be secondary to the Substitutionary Theory.

    Or else, let’s just throw out all theology since the Reformation, which, sadly, too many emerging church leaders are all to quick to do.  They say things like, “Christ has been so misrepresented we must start over.”  Start over?  Really?   Ouch.  Luther and Calvin and Turrettin and that great cloud of witnesses that did the linguistic and theological work, standing on the shoulders of their forebears, to give us this most precious, utterly unique message of a Savior who loved us and gave himself up for us.

jesuspowerI thank God for the men and women who loved me enough to tell me about Jesus.  It thank God for people who believed in the Great Commission and built churches to keep spreading the gospel.  I thank God for the people who bugged me to Christ.  Now it’s our turn.  Keep Christ central to the gospel.  And keep the Cross central to Christ.

Beware the Crossless Gospel and Beware the Christless Cross.

15 thoughts on “A Christless Cross and a Crossless Gospel

  1. The timing of this blog is impeccable. Just yesterday I had this conversation with a friend who believes strongly in “mega-flexibility”….especially your point number 1.

    Thanks so much for this much needed encouragement.

  2. You’ve given us a lot to chew on. Isn’t it frightening how easy it is to lose the power of important truths? We tweak words/concepts to make them “more palatable,” repeat them enough times, and they eventually weaken our understanding.

  3. God help us all to be the “warriors” He wants us to be!! Steady, strong, convinced, and loving – our children, grandchildren, families, friends, and world need that.

    Thanks for the concise truth of your warning of a Crossless Gospel and Christless Cross. So good!

  4. Bill…

    I am refreshed by your words.

    When I was doing prison ministry, we ran into the same conundrum. Are we here to love them (give them hugs, cookies, and friendship) or are we here to save them (describe God’s intent to redeem/save lost people through the substitutionary blood atonement of His Son, Jesus)?

    This dualism is all over our minds and Christian theologies. For example, we can love and cherish our Jewish friends, but let’s not talk about Jesus as Messiah and start stepping on toes! There you have it–loving others and keeping Jesus out of the discussion. It’s what I call lifestyle-evangelism-dualism, and dualism (in all its forms) is not consistent with our understanding of basic Christian doctrines. For example, another form of dualism is that the Person of Jesus was actually two persons (human and divine), etc…

    Bill… This is age-old stuff… goes way, way back!! (smile)

    Think about this way — and this is how I try to keep this at the kitchen-table level of theology with people. People do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care. The fruit does not fall far from the root of the tree… (Stay with me here, please.) In other words, the fruit of the Spirit is going to manifest itself in glorifying the Son. (That is the work of the Holy Spirit, i.e., to glorify the Son.) Inimitable Holy Spirit-sourced power and love (fruit) will always magnify the Son, Jesus, in all its fruits and manifestations… That is what the 1 Cor 13 passage on love is all about. You can’t shine a light into the darkness and the expect the darkness to NOT disappear. Our lifestyle-evangelism-dualism tries to do that: i.e., shine light without dispelling darkness (the bright Morning Star is Jesus an there is no hiding his light). If your so-called “light” does not dispel darkness, then… well… it’s not light (a la the Book of First John).


  5. Having met you at the Books & Such retreat, I know this is a genuine passion, not just a stirring article. It resonates with those of us who are shaken by well-meaning trends that neglect to take people to the Cross and tip-toe around the Name that is above all names–Jesus. Thank you for expressing it so well.

  6. Bill, great post. In this “politically correct” world, any mention of God, and especially Christ, is not allowed. We are told this may “offend” someone. We’l guess what, the most offensive person who ever lived was Jesus. He claimed to be (and was/is/and will always be) God. He told those who thought they were right how wrong they were. He revealed the true wicked nature of man. This is why I do not like the word, apologetics. It makes me think we are apologizing for the Gospel. We should not be ashamed of our faith and especially our Lord.

  7. Great post, Bill.
    One observation:
    Symptom #2 (A fondness for the saying, “It’s not our job to get people saved.”) is also a symptom of hyper-calvinism, but for a different reason. In hyper-calvinism, there’s almost of sense of “wasting the gospel” on someone who’s not elect. There seems to be the feeling that we should not proclaim the gospel to the masses for fear of a non-elect person responding in an emotional way. Rather, the gospel is preached only to those who have been vetted by someone “who knows.” The message seems to need guarding from easy-believism. Too bad. Such practices deny the power of the Gospel message. I doubt you’ll hear an open gospel invitation in such a church.


  8. As a member of the “generation of Christians raised with post-modern… uhhh… let us call it ‘mega-flexibility,’ ” I am wary to post here. I understand to some degree the trouble that can come from throwing Christ out with the cross, from sacrificing “witnessing” or “sharing the gospel” on the alter of social gospel/social justice. I am concerned also that the knee-jerk reaction some of my age have to pushing Jesus onto people isn’t so much different from the knee-jerk reaction some of the older generation have against doing anything different.

    While I don’t think we need to toss out current theology of Christ and start over, I am quick to say that the moral majority, Focus on the Family, 700 Club elitist Christianity which has been the public face of God in this country for the last half-century has done more harm than good. Our God is Love. Our Lord Jesus started with “I love you” when he was on this earth. Jesus never said, “I’ll love you if…” or “I’ll love you when…”. Many of us of this generation see too many of our brothers and sisters approach non-believers and try to clean them up before they share the gospel or invite them to church. I have heard with my own ears someone say, “When you stop being gay, then you’ll be worthy to hear the gospel.” Yikes!

    Jesus didn’t witness. Jesus didn’t befriend people with ulterior motives. My generation wants to live out Love the way Jesus did. We read the Gospels and see that Christ delivered very few sermons and ate a lot of meals. He led very few worship services and healed a TON of sick people.

    I will concede there are some out there of my age who won’t be happy until we are all Unitarian Universalists. I believe that view is the minority view. I know that people need Jesus. I also know you have to earn the right to talk about Jesus. Bill said himself that, “[i]f I’m your friend, over time, you’ll discover that I’m also friends with Dave and Dale and Jim and Gail and whoever else.” The key phrase he is “over time”. We have to build relationships with people before we earn the right to start talking about our other friends. I take issue with the idea that we befriend someone with the motive that we will win them to Christ. We should befriend people because God calls us to love. We should befriend people because, as everyone’s favorite liberal, Barbara Streisand says, “People need people.”

    Ok, those are my two centavos… Thanks for the opportunity.

    Tozer Seminary

  9. Matty,

    I have to vehemently disagree with you. When you spout the old lines about the Christian Coalition,Focus on the Family etc., you basically said lets fufill the “social gospel” and while were at it, lets use tax dollars to do it. You may disagree with the late Rev. Falwell and Dr. Dobson but In my eyes, they are modern day heroes of the faith. Their showing the wrongs in society and calls to turn to the Lord were correct.
    I don’t see that as elistist, rather I see the so-called “mainline” Protestant denomonations as elistist. They discount the true Christ, as it may interfere with their tolerance (of unbiblical practices) and deny Jesus as the only way to Heaven. They turn up their noses to Evangelicals, which is the definition of elistist.
    I’m not saying we should be violent or rude or disrespectful to those we disagree with but “doing good because I’m a good person” is wrong. Once we buy into the social gospel without the bedrock of the true Gospel, in the words of our brother, Alice Cooper, “Welcome to my Nightmare.”

  10. Bill,

    Forgive me, I’m going to ramble, but you explicitly bring up some excellent points and hint towards some others that I can’t resist.

    I’m with you, man. If we’ve found something so good and true and beautiful as the Christian story, its only natural to express our love of it and to invite others to share in it. I do it w/ TV shows and movies and music and books. Why not w/ something so much more important and fulfilling! And yeah, it might make some people uncomfortable, but its also okay to acknowledge that our faith looks a little weird from the outside and when you’re new to it. Of course it does and all you have to do is ask people to be patient and to try to see all the value and love and grace and goodness we see. They’re often willing, if you ask with some understanding.

    and of course, the irony of the “post-modern” Christians who say they want to unload their tradition and start from “scratch” is that what they are really doing is being good modernists. But that just comes from the age old problem of thoughtlessness being called insight. True post-modernism recognizes that there is no access to truth and understanding except via tradition. Our traditions provide the horizon in which truth can be meaningful to us. Brian McLaren-style “post-modernism” is really just thorough going modernism in sheep’s clothing.

    But I’m a little worried that the equivocation problem you point out about “its not our job to get people saved” might also happen with the sub-phrase “get people saved.”

    I think what people often understand by “get people saved” is to get them to assent to the truth value of a set of propositions. Someone is saved when they acknowledge the truth or “factuality” of the Four Spiritual Laws, for example. And if that’s what conversion is, then evangelism really IS manipulative and really IS an ulterior motive. It’s Kirk Cameron and “the way of the master” or whatever it is on late-night TBN. Tricking people into assenting to truth value.

    and of course that makes people uncomfortable. It should. Its manipulation, not evangelism.

    However, I think when you say “get people saved” you might mean something more like providing the opportunity for them to commit to a relationship with the person of Jesus by accepting His gift of Grace. (quibbles about atonement theory aside. I like Christus Victor, personally, but mostly because its so unfairly neglected in contemporary scholarship. I’m a sucker for the under-dog.) That means that evangelism is much more like introducing our new aquaintances to our old friend (Jesus) than it is like tricking them into agreeing w/ our propositional beliefs.

    In fact, there’s an even more long-standing misapprehension that drives me NUTS! When people talk about Jesus being their “personal Lord and Savior,” I think they misunderstand the word personal there.

    If by personal we mean something akin to my “personal shopper” or my “personal trainer”….YUCK!

    but if we mean by personal; having the character of being a person…well, now we’re getting somewhere. First of all, it hints at the Trinity, which I’m all about. But second, it means that Christianity isn’t just a religious point of view based on a set of idealogical beliefs, much like we’d have a political point of view. Rather, its the chosen commitment to a relationship with a PERSON, namely the Son of God.

    An aside: Marriage, incidentally, is a sacrament in so far as it is a visible sign of the invisible reality of that PERSONAL relationship we have with Jesus.

    In other words; Jesus isn’t “MY personal Savior.” Jesus is THE personal Savior.

    Evangelism, then, is about introducing people to Jesus, the PERSON.

    (I’m resisting the urge to go off on a rant about taking Paul seriously when he talks about the church being the BODY of Christ, but just barely…)

    Thanks and Godspeed.

    • Great stuff, as always, Jonathan. Thanks. I agree with you on the word personal… I think it came into vogue to combat the idea of Jesus as merely a theological Savior, or conceptual Savior, or generalized Savior. In his role as Savior, you need to bring him home. You need to respond to his call personally, person to person, sinner to Savior. Love your insights on Brian MacLaren’s post-modernism being modernism in disguise. Gotta noodle on that one. Thank you.

  11. Bill,

    Forgive me if this is repetitive, but I’d like to chime in. First of all, as an angry, old, ranter, I say there’s a place for us.

    We get to point one when we overanalyze what people are going to think of us. It’s not their judgment that matters. If we know that we are working within godly parameters, then another’s judgment of you is of no personal consequence. Do what God leads you to do. Some of those actions are going to be toward the end of confronting (maybe too strong of a word) someone with the Gospel. Some actions end with the action. I don’t obey traffic lights to the end of witnessing to someone. In fact, the opportunities would probably be greater if I disobeyed them: “Yes, officer, I did run that light. Do you know that Jesus died for that sin?” Or, “Sorry I’ve brought you to the brink of death by running into you, but do you know where you will go if you die?” Alternatively, you may send a check to the Greater Chicago Food Depository (shameless plug), and let it go with that. Only you and God are privy to the rightness of your actions.
    That leads to point 2. I agree with that meaning one. I think where we get in trouble is that we often really mean that it’s not our job to judge whether someone is really saved (outside of considering them for some ministries). If we do that and then continue or discontinue our relationship based on that judgment, then the friend can feel manipulated. There can be two dangers. We, for some reason, think they are saved, and assume them into hell. Or we judge they aren’t and nag them there instead.
    Point three is the most important. But it’s not just the emergent church doing that. Joel Osteen and his ilk are doing the same thing. They are more popular, so I think they are the bigger danger.
    Joe, I love what you had to say. Careful about using the term lifestyle evangelism negatively. I know you used it differently. My only fear, and it’s personal, is that you might dissuade someone from reading a great book called Lifestyle Evangelism by Joe Aldrich from the ‘80’s. His point was to help people develop friendships that would lead to a discussion of the Gospel.
    Robb, while your heroes did some good stuff, they tended to throw people off track by distracting them from the Gospel and onto moral issues. And the agenda of America is not necessarily the agenda of the church. BTW, welcome to Vegas.
    Thanks, Bill, and Merry Christmas. Gonna be in Chicago at all?

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