In the previous Les Miserables post I touched briefly upon the idea of how people idolise success and confuse it with merit. There was a relevant quote from Victor Hugo that I wanted to include in that post. I did not include it, because it would have made that post too long, so I will include it here.
In passing, we might say that success is a hideous thing. Its false similarity to merit deceives men. To the masses, success has almost the same appearance as supremacy. Success, that pretender to talent, has a dupe–history. Juvenal and Tacitus only reject it. In our day, an almost official philosophy has entered into its service, wears its livery, and waits in its antechamber. Success: That is the theory. Prosperity supposes capacity. Win in the lottery, and you are an able man. The victor is venerated. To be born with a caul is everything. Have luck alone and you will have the rest; be happy, and you will be thought great. Beyond the five or six great exceptions, the wonders of their age, contemporary admiration is nothing but shortsightedness. Gilt is gold. To be a chance comer is no drawback, provided you have improved your chances. The common herd is an old Narcissus, who adores himself and applauds the common. That mighty genius, by which one becomes a Moses, an Aeschylus, a Dante, a Michelangelo, or a Napoleon, the multitude attributes at once and by acclamation to whoever succeeds in his object, whatever it may be. Let a notary rise to be a deputy; let a sham Corneille write Tiridate; let a eunuch come into the possession of a harem; let a military Prudhomme accidentally win the decisive battle of an era; let a pharmacist invent cardboard soles for army shoes and put aside, by selling this cardboard as leather for the army of the Sambre-et-Meuse, four hundred thousand livres in income; let a peddler marry usury and have her bear seven or eight million, of which he is the father and she the mother; let a preacher become a bishop by talking platitudes; let the steward of a good house become so rich that on leaving service he is made Minister of Finance–men call that Genius, just as they call the face of Mousqueton, Beauty, and the bearing of Claude, Majesty. They confuse heaven’s radiant stars with a duck’s footprint left in the mud.
Okay, there are a whole lot of names in the above quote that you probably know nothing of, but I think you get the idea. Society considers that which is successful to be good simply by the mere fact that it is successful, with no question as to whether or not it is actually good. A man could win a billion dollars in the lottery, and he will be held by society in the exact same esteem as a man who earns a billion dollars by hard work and wise, shrewd investment. A man who is appointed to a high position simply by virtue of his social connections is held in the exact same esteem as a man who is eminently qualified for the position by virtue of his own merit. A preacher who builds a church of 300,000 by talking platitudes which have nothing whatsoever to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ is held in the exact same esteem as one who achieves the same results while remaining faithful to the Gospel, if in fact that is possible. And a church which draws a crowd by reinventing itself in such a way as to be pleasing to unbelievers is held in greater esteem than a church which proclaims and lives out the Gospel, but does not pull the numbers.
Those last two examples should have hit home really hard with those of us who are deeply emmeshed in the world of evangelical Protestant-dom.
You see, we evangelicals are so enamoured with the idol of success that in many places it has led us to forsake the Gospel altogether. Let a preacher build a church of 300,000 by talking pablum, let a church inflate its size by padding its membership rolls with imaginary members that no one can find, let a church build itself up into the biggest church in town by throwing away anything and everything which connects us in any way with those believers who have gone before us and becoming a place where you have to wait an awfully long time to hear the Gospel preached or even mentioned at all–all in the name of relevance and appealing to the lost, let a denomination baptize 400,000 people in a single year while at the same time embracing rampant segregationism, militant fundamentalism, and an arrogant separatism toward all the rest of Christianity, and all of these will be thought to be signs of God’s anointing and the work of the Holy Spirit.
While we’re talking about abandoning the Gospel, let us consider the question of why it is so easy for us to abandon the Gospel.
The answer is that we don’t see it happening. We make a series of small shifts that appear to us to be inconsequential. But over time they add up, with the end result that we have moved away from the Gospel.
Perhaps an analogy might be helpful here. Many of you have been to beaches where they use a system of flags to indicate how safe the water is for swimming. A green flag means that the water is perfectly calm and anyone can swim in it. A yellow flag means that the water is moderately rough and anyone who swims in it should use caution. A red flag means that the water is so rough that only the most experienced swimmers should even attempt it. And a double red flag means that the beach is closed.
Apply this toward moving away from the Gospel, and here is what we would have: A green flag means that you are faithful to the Gospel. A yellow flag means that you are starting to move away. A red flag means you’ve moved a long way away. And a double red flag means you’ve abandoned the Gospel completely.
If you talk about anything other than the Gospel, then at that point the green flag needs to come down and the yellow flag needs to go up. It then becomes incumbent upon you to show how whatever you are talking about relates to the Gospel, and to tie it carefully and thoroughly to the Gospel at every point.
But what happens is that we make a series of yellow-flag moves without bothering to put up the yellow flag, and then many of us don’t react when it’s time to put up the red flag or the double red flag.
Here is a prime example: Joel Osteen. He does NOT preach the Gospel. I don’t care what any of you Osteen fans out there may say; he just doesn’t. You may recall a few days back when I linked that video of Joel Osteen preaching about not eating pork or shellfish; go back and take a look at that and you will see what I am talking about. Recall that a few years back he made the statement that “We don’t talk about the Cross, that’s too negative”. And then ask yourself: What did you expect?
Another example is the question of what is the true church. The Catholic position is that Christ established His Church and endowed it with a perpetual hierarchy of leadership going all the way back to the Apostles in unbroken succession. Evangelicals conceive of “church” as an invisible entity consisting of all who profess faith in Jesus Christ. But whenever Christ or the other biblical writers speak of “church” they are speaking of a visible entity. This visible entity possesses ecclesial authority not because some group of people came together on their own and set up their own authority, but because this authority was conferred upon it by Christ, the apostles, or those who were commissioned by the apostles. It is not enough to have faith in Christ; you must also be in communion with His Church–that is, the ecclesial entity whose leadership was commissioned by Christ and His apostles.
St. Francis de Sales puts it like this:
First, then, your ministers had not the conditions required for the position which they sought to maintain, and the enterprise which they undertook. … The office they claimed was that of ambassadors of Jesus Christ our Lord; the affair they undertook was to declare a formal divorce between Our Lord and the ancient Church his Spouse; to arrange and conclude by words of present consent, as lawful procurators, a second and new marriage with this young madam, of better grace, said they, and more seemly than the other. … To be legates and ambassadors they should have been sent, they should have had letters of credit from him whom they boasted of being sent by. … Tell me, what business had you to hear them and believe them without having any assurance of their commission and of the approval of Our Lord, whose legates they called themselves? In a word, you have no justification for having quitted that ancient Church in which you were baptized, on the faith of preachers who had no legitimate mission from the Master.
Many evangelicals have been swayed by arguments such as this, and have defected to the Catholic Church over the last two decades. But this true church question is not the Gospel. Israel was God’s true, chosen people, but that nation was chock full of people who did not believe the Gospel and who rejected faith in God, and who rejected Christ when He came. Also note that Christ did a sizeable portion of His ministry outside the nation of Israel and spent sizeable amounts of time and energy reaching out to people who were not part of the nation of Israel.
Belonging to the true church is not the Gospel. Church growth is not the Gospel. Success in life and having God’s favor are not the Gospel.
In Galatians, Paul was quite animated about the issue of abandoning the Gospel. He directed a vast array of choice insults toward certain individuals in the Galatian community who insisted upon incorporating certain aspects of Old Covenant Judaism into the New Covenant Christian experience of the Galatian community. Perhaps these individuals had in mind the words of Jesus Christ when He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:16-18). In their way of thinking, if Christ did not abolish the Old Covenant, then the Old Covenant is still in force. Therefore it is not enough to take hold of the New Covenant; one must also include the Old Covenant by way of its external sign–circumcision. But Paul said that with that one stroke, you have rejected the true Gospel in favor of a false gospel.
We need to take a long, hard look at all of the areas in which we have abandoned the Gospel. We need to get back to the Gospel, because that is our sole raison d’etre as Christians. Not church growth. Not life coaching. Not God’s favor. Not the true Church. Not holy living. Not denominational distinctives. The Gospel.