After the Christmas Eve service we attended in Virginia, my brother-in-law asked a fair question, “When the preacher was speaking, were you critiquing him? I wondered about that since you have been a minister.” I admitted that, yes, I had in some ways critiqued the sermon. What I noted was that I had at times used some of the same arguments that were in the Christmas homily. Arguments, for example, about how the Christ fulfilled many of the prophecies given by ancient Jewish writers. But, I observed, if we are using the same Bible we should be preaching the same things. After all, there is “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Eph. 4:5, 6).
There is only one gospel. There is not a gospel for the Presbyterians and a different gospel for the Baptists and yet a different one for the Methodists and another gospel unique to other groups. The Lord Jesus Christ transcends denominations. There is but one way and in reality only one body of Christ.
If someone comes preaching a different gospel than what has been revealed through the scriptures and believed by orthodox Christians through the centuries dating back to the apostles, then that is a false gospel and must be rejected. Paul the Apostle used strong words to emphasize this. “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). And to make sure there is no mistaking his meaning, he doubled down. “As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 4:9).
I recently borrowed an autobiography of a Methodist theologian from a friend’s library. The day was Tuesday. Two days later, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, I heard the news that the author, Thomas C. Oden, had died. I had not yet read “A Change of Heart” but hearing of Oden’s passing piqued my interest. What I read about the early part of his ministry was disturbing. I was reading a confession of his sins. His grievous sins were preaching and teaching another gospel than the one Paul had proclaimed.
“All of us were left wing Democrats involved in liberal social action efforts,” wrote Oden. “I was especially moved by the music and temperament of fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie…While he was unwittingly co-opted by the Communist Party, I was more than willing to be co-opted by the SDA socialists…I found Saul Alinsky’s teaching of socialist pragmatism and political opportunism extremely useful as I made plans to co-opt religious structures as instruments for the fundamental transformation of society…His “Reveille for Radicals” had a great appeal for a pastoral idealist like me and would also have a decisive effect on Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama in the years that followed.”
Why had Oden abandoned the basic Christian beliefs he had been raised with? He explained. “I loved the illusions and blithely ignored the consequences. As a result I caused unintended harm…I confess now that I became entrapped with the desire for upward mobility in an academic environment that would generate ideas for a regulatory society…The wrongs I failed to recognize in my youth have had ripple effects that I will never completely know…”
Reading this confession brought back a flood of memories to me. I remember those days and how challenging it was to be a Bible-believing Christian while the big churches that many college students attended were advocating exactly the kind of social gospel that Oden was so influential in promoting. Warnings about these false teachings were dismissed by many religious leaders of the day and certainly by the universities and the press. Yet the gospel had not changed, and God worked even in lives of those who were part of promoting falsehood.
Oden became a changed man when his heart was changed, as per the title of his autobiography. “I did not become an orthodox believer or theologian until after I tried most of the errors long rejected by Christianity. If my first forty years were spent hungering for meaning in life, the last forty have been spent being fed. If the first forty were prodigal, the last forty have been a homecoming …The simple truth is that my life direction was entirely turned around by orthodox Christian faith.”
His transformation did not come without a personal cost. Those who continued on the radical trajectory who were once his allies became his persecutors. He found himself defending traditional views on marriage and sexuality while the majority of those in his university were continuing the false gospel conclusions regarding issues such as abortion and homosexuality. They promoted a regulatory society which would coerce compliance to abortion (Hillary once called it a sacrament) and homosexuality (Obama lit up the Whitehouse in rainbow colors celebrating the Court’s decision on same-sex marriage.)
I am thankful that Oden had a change of heart and became a great influence for orthodox Christian beliefs. At the same time, I am aware that the influence he had as a fellow traveler with socialists and Marxists continues long after he had himself been changed.
While pastoring in Kansas I was asked to visit a man with terminal cancer. The doctors estimated he had about a month of life left. When I spoke to him about the Lord, he countered that he could get as close to God out at the lake as he could in church. I agreed that at the lake he could see the revelation of God as creator and sustainer, as giver of beauty and enjoyment. But the lake does not teach you how to have your sins forgiven. Only Jesus can do that for you. He listened. Then he prayed, not for the revelation of God’s creation, but for the forgiveness of his sins that Jesus had purchased for him “on a hill far away on an old rugged cross.” He died hopeful in Christ.
No other gospel than the truth that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” can get at the real need of a dying man. In a sense, we are all dying. As someone has said, none of us gets out of here alive. A so-called social gospel does not address the need of the heart of man. Only the gospel of salvation by grace through faith is sufficient to change the heart of the sinner.
Along the way we are to help the poor and relieve the oppressed, but our main mission as we travel through this transient lifetime is to “go into all the world and preach the gospel.” There are not numerous gospels available for the choosing. There is only one message.
We would do well to follow Paul the Apostle who was careful to keep that message and proclaim it.
“But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)