When I was working on Doctor of Ministry degree (D. Min.), I had the privilege of studying under a marvelous preaching professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary named Robert Shelton. (Dr. Shelton later served as Dean and President at APTS.) In a preaching class with other D. Min. students, he would begin critiquing his sermons with a deliberate misquoting of I Corinthians 13:13. The passage is rightly famous and is most commonly translated “so faith, hope, and love abide; and the greatest of these is love.” In the old King James translation the word love is render “charity.” Thus the verse read: “So faith, hope and charity abide; and the greatest of these is charity.” On his critique Dr. Shelton would say, “So faith, hope and clarity abide; and the greatest of these is clarity!”
There is a truth in his witty misquoting that we need to embrace. It goes hand in hand with the critical need for focus. We need clarity. We need to share the essence of the gospel in clear unmistakable terms. Often we operate with Christendom assumptions. We hold to the belief that people know the essence of the gospel; that they know the story of ruin through sin, rescue through Christ on the cross and restoration through resurrection and new life in Christ.
And yet, at our 2013 meeting of the Central Texas Conference, Dr. Kenda Dean (a United Methodist elder and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary) reminded us forcefully that for much of America, Christianity has been boiled down to heretical fuzziness. She called this fuzzy imposter for Christianity “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (Be good/moral; religion is therapeutic, bringing warm fuzzies and counseling encouragement that makes us better, and we believe in one god [small g] somewhere out there.) In her insightful book Almost Christian she wrote: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the ‘crown of rejoicing’ that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former” (Kenda Creasy Death, Almost Christian, p. 5).
A few months ago Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary commented on the same theme in a blog. “One of the greatest needs in the church today is a healthy dose of gospel clarity. Even in the evangelical churches, it seems that the gospel message has become obscured under a heavy cloud of vague moralisms, self-help injunctions, public therapy sermons, and so forth. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His word which cuts through all of the religious rubble which builds up inside churches. Religion is like cholesterol plaque which slowly accumulates on the walls of your arteries. It creeps in unnoticed, but it can eventually kill you. We love the slow buildup of religious activity and, like the money-changers in the Temple, it can slowly squeeze out the actual purpose of the church.
“This problem is not limited to the Methodist. This is a far ranging problem which cuts right across the contemporary church. It is the same muddle which caused a church to put up on their sign outside, ‘Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.’ It is the same problem which causes churches to eliminate prayers of confession lest the church not be regarded as ‘seeker sensitive.’ It is the same problem which blurs the line between Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘power of positive thinking’ and the church. The list could go on and on.
“Brothers and sisters, we must find new ways to let the clarity of the gospel ring forth from our lives and from the ministries of the church. Wesley’s ‘heart-warming experience’ must be wedded anew with the steadfast powerful message of the gospel as found exposited by Luther in his preface to the Romans. This is certainly how Wesley himself interpreted his heart warming experience. After May 24th he became crystal clear about the nature of the gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Word of God. He became razor sharp in his passion to preach the gospel, evangelize the world, disciple believers and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. We should remind ourselves every day that being a Methodist or a Presbyterian or ‘non-denominational’ means nothing if it is not first and foremost an outgrowth of our more basic identity as Christians who have been transformed by and through Jesus Christ” (Timothy Tennent, http://timothytennent.com/2014/03/30/remembering-the-source-of-aldersgate/; Sunday, March 30th, 2014).
Recently in reading Michael Green’s Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, I encountered its insistence that the earliest Christians absolutely refused to be syncretic. (Syncretism is the notion that all religions and faith systems are essentially equal; all roads lead to the top of the same divine mountain.) With exquisite politeness and absolute firmness the early Christian rejected such muddled thinking. Pastor (& Professor) Green wrote: “There is no additional way. There is no alternative way. Christ is the way to salvation” (Emphasis in the original; Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, p. 232). He continued, “The disciples did not go round casting aspersions on other expressions of religious faith. They did, however, point to Jesus as the only way in which God has fully come to humans, and the only way by which humans can fully come to God and know him as Father” (Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World, p. 232).
Faith, hope and clarity indeed. We need love. It is still the greatest! But I submit there is wisdom offered by Shelton, Dean, Tennent and Green. We are in desperate need of gracious (!I emphasize gracious!) clarity!