I’m becoming convinced that one of the most common (and perhaps willful) fallacies with regard to the Gospel is manifest in two exactly opposite ways, which together hold in tension the opposition between liberal Christians and conservative Christians, speaking here of the hyper- sort. Both groups need to protect the fallacy as a means of self-preservation, because neither group could exist as such without the ‘other’ group to exist against. But, unfortunately for both groups, the Gospel provides no basis to support their opposition as such and therefore neither for their strange and codependent relationship and therefore neither for their group identities as such. The Gospel strips its adherents of any rhetoric that requires a sustained grammar of opposition against a “them” in order to define, and preserve, an “us.”
The Gospel came to all, Jews and Gentiles alike, conservatives and liberals alike, from the Other side of enemy lines. It is only in hearing it declare us its enemies that we can hear it declare us its allies–only the accused can hear their Advocate–because those apparently opposite categories of identity are held together in the Gospel’s one Word of declaration in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter Sunday survives only to the degree that it remains staked to the Friday before. The Gospel thus indeed preserves the language of opposition but transforms it within its unique grammar of reconciliation (established in principle in the hypostatic union from which pours forth a new and holy grammar on all flesh, cf. Acts 2:17).
But Conservative Christians tend to sanctify the language of opposition simply by sanctifying themselves, that is, by moving “us” onto “God’s” side and thereby dramatically demonizing the “them.” It is Easter Sunday untethered from Friday’s cross and staked only to an eschatological “us.” And therefore Sunday is no longer Easter and Friday is no longer Good.
And Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to, with inexplicable immediacy, stand on the grammar of reconciliation without any word of definition, topsoil for an entirely new language, categorically refusing grounds for any accusation whatever by moving “God” onto the side of “us” thereby erasing the possibility of “them” and gently annihilating the “other.” So the liberal speaks of “acceptance,” not “forgiveness,” of “inclusiveness, not “repentance,” an ever-widening and -accepting circle of “us.” It is a fusion, not a union. But, ironically, an opposition must be maintained, namely against any word of accusation. As such, none are excluded except the excluders, none are judged except the judgmental, none are rejected by God except those whose God rejects anyone. And, it turns, each group ends up balancing out, equally exclusive, and–as a group–equally antichrist.
The underlying fallacy of this circus has to do with a misunderstanding and/or misappropriation of the grace of God under the New Covenant, namely that either:
(a) the grace of God under the New Covenant lowers God’s standard of righteousness (e.g., the sloppy liberal confession that is willing to say “we’re all sinners” in general, according to God’s Word, but unwilling to allow God’s Word to define any sin in particular);
or (b) the grace of God under the New Covenant is an entirely separate category from God’s standard of righteousness (e.g., the militant (but equally as sloppy) insistence that grace means “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except though [‘us’, ahem, we mean ‘Him’]”, on the one hand, and, on the other, that his righteous standard is still based on a Law he established with Israel that the rest of the world should be obligated to apply in principle (or at least a carefully (re: conveniently) selected adumbration of laws), regardless of whether or not they recognize the Law-Giver, which of course suggests that the world needs godliness but doesn’t really need God).
If I may, to both groups, recommend a sermon once preached that addresses this fallacy and both its manifestations found in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapters 5-7. Actually, it is not a sermon. We only call it a sermon, even giving it the formal designation “Sermon on the Mount,” because of a refusal to acknowledge that under the New Covenant God has, in fact, descended to the Mount Himself as the Law, to issue the commands in Person, and thereby reveals an infinitely higher standard of righteousness. As long as we can codify the words uttered on the Mount as mere sermon principles, we can avoid the terrible prospect of hearing them as the codification of a New and binding Commandment. They are nothing less and, indeed, much more.
God’s standard of righteousness, this side of the New Covenant of grace, is no longer defined and established by the Old Covenant of Law—God’s commands to a nation. God’s standard of righteousness is now defined and established in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ—God’s love for the world—who fulfilled the righteousness intended to create a just society and exceeded it with a righteousness intended to create a gracious society. That excessive righteousness is the only way to the Father, which is precisely why Jesus, not Christian fundamentalism, is the the only way to the Father. Only the Grace that comes from the Father can take us back to Him and make us gracious like Him.
So the New Covenant of grace does not effect a decrease in the righteousness God requires but an infinite increase. That is why Jesus said, in effect, the righteousness required to enter his kingdom exceeds the righteousness of the Law-keepers (Mt. 5:17-20); why not-love of another, whether enemy or neighbor or neighbor’s wife, is tantamount to murder; why under His standard all of us are “liable to the hell of fire”; why in the burning light of His love all of us should become one-eyed and dismembered (Mt. 5:21-30); why the self-righteous polarizing rhetoric that identifies one’s own group as sheep by wiping its bloody hands on the forehead of some homogeneously identified other group as goats (whether “liberal” or “conservative” or “fundamentalist” or “skeptic” or “Muslim” or “Christian” or perhaps even, quite ironically, Christ Himself) is tantamount to the kind of scapegoating that can demand holy justice in the world only by permitting the one small exception of its own injustice, the kind of scapegoating the Law revealed was provisionally necessary because it simultaneously revealed that all fall short of its righteous standard, the kind of scapegoating that can be embraced only if the Gospel is rejected.
Christ is either the Lamb slain for a world of goats, or we will simply have to convince God that “we” are of a kind of sheep more spotless than the Slaughtered Lamb and “they” are a kind of goat more stained than Pilate’s hand, the centurion’s hand, the hand not reaching out, the hand clinching tightly to control, to greed, to revenge, to unforgiveness, the hand clicking on the mouse, the hand that is ice cold to the spouse and children that so need its living and loving warmth. We will have to convince God to be more satisfied with a judgment of guilt that exiles the ‘other’ than the judgment of guilt that reconciles the world (cf. Romans 5 and the rest of the Bible).
“Judge not, lest you be judged” (Mt. 7:1).
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).