The gospel is the story of Jesus Christ proclaimed in the performative mode of unconditional promise. What this means practically for the preacher is this: each week, through prayer, study, and meditation on the appointed biblical text, he must find a way, under the guidance of the Spirit, to proclaim the text as good news, as glad tidings that liberates his hearers for the kingdom rather than as law that accuses, enslaves, and destroys. The preacher is charged not just to inform his hearers about God and instruct them in the moral and ascetical life. First and foremost he is charged to speak a word of grace that changes their lives by relating them—in all of their concrete fears, tragedies, failures, sins, and hopes—to the ultimate triumph of Jesus Christ. The preacher must always promise his hearers the final future. A proper homily is thus simultaneously eschatological and existential address—a living word that liberates from guilt, evokes hope, and opens fresh possibilities for love and life. A proper homily, in other words, bestows the Holy Spirit.
I have insisted in this series that the gospel is unconditional promise. So far my readers have not pushed me too hard on this, yet I detect a measure of anxiety. Exactly how unconditional is unconditional? Surely we must respond to God’s love, must we not? Love must be freely accepted if a free and mutual relationship is to be established, right? For Orthodox, Catholics, and Arminian Protestants, the freedom of the human person to accept or reject God is decisive and ultimate. In the words of Paul Evdokimov: “God can do everything, except constrain us to love him.” It would appear, then, that here we have finally reached a limit, an authentic salvific proviso. How can the risen Jesus promise us that we are destined for his kingdom, when we are free to reject him? Given human freedom, the “gospel” can only, therefore, be a qualified promise. To each gospel announcement we need to append the clause “… if you believe, repent, and persevere.” Hence it’s not really really good news at all. In the final analysis the “gospel” thus is sheer obligation and demand. God has done his part; now it’s up to us to do ours. The burden of our ultimate salvation rests fully upon our shoulders: if we want to be saved, we must repent of our sins, ask God to forgive us, love him in return, commit ourselves to ascetical discipline, follow the moral precepts, and not be caught dead in mortal sin.
It is descriptively true that together faith, repentance, love, sanctity form the one essential condition for salvific communion with the Holy Trinity. We must be made fit for heaven. But consider how this will inevitably be heard by our congregations if we preach this condition as the evangel of the resurrection—gospel becomes law! As we have seen, nomistic preaching of this kind only reinforces the power of “the law of sin and death” over our people and ourselves. Yet preachers do it all the time, and then they wonder why their sermons bear so little spiritual fruit.
At some point in the future I hope to write a couple of articles addressing the question of human freedom. I am not satisfied with the way the God-human relationship is commonly formulated. There is more to be said. Synergism is far more mysterious than popularly conceived. But for the moment I simply register my disagreement with conditionalist construals of the Christian message. The gospel is good news—good, wonderful, exhilarating, transformative, deifying news. It is good news because it is unconditional promise declaimed by the One who is risen from the dead. As Robert Jenson writes:
The final promise is and has to be … absolute, unconditional, entirely and utterly free of “if’s” or “maybe’s” of any sort. The point is again tautologous: an Eschaton can be promised only unconditionally—whatever problems that may raise about the hearer’s acceptance, etc. I have not got things going until I [the preacher] hear from the text and can say to my hearers, “You will be …, in spite of all considerations to the contrary.” This is the distinction of gospel from law; for the law is any address with an “if.” (“The Preacher, the Text, and Certain Dogmas,” dialog (Spring 1982): 112)
If the Church never speaks unconditional promise in the name of Christ, then the gospel is simply never spoken. Some other language game is being played.
The gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of the human fulfillment of its hearers, made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The gospel, rightly spoken, involves no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes of any sort. It does not say, “If you do your best to live a good life, God will fulfill that life,” or, “If you fight on the right side of the great issues of your time …,” or, “If you repent …,” or, “If you believe …” It does not even say, “If you want to do good/repent/believe …,” or, “If you are sorry for not wanting to do good/repent/believe …” The gospel says, “Because the Crucified lives as Lord, your destiny is good.” The Reformation’s first and last assertion was that any talk of Jesus and God and human life that does not transcend all conditions is a perversion of the gospel and will be at best irrelevant in the lives of hearers and at worst destructive. (Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism, p. 42)
But didn’t the Reformers tell us that we are justified by faith? In the history of Protestantism, faith has often been presented as the one condition that needs to be fulfilled for salvation. This conviction lies behind revivalist decisionism, for example. Yet when faith is given its full biblical significance as trust and dependence, it can only be construed but disastrously as a condition for salvation. “If I really think I can win ultimate fulfillment by chastity, or civil honesty, or even monastic asceticism,” observes Jenson, “there is no insuperable problem in performing such things, given so overwhelming a motivation. But how do I set out to believe? And how would I ever know I had achieved it?” (p. 37).
What then does “faith” mean? Try thinking about it this way: if I speak to you a conditional promise, what is your response going to be? Quite likely you will either ignore it, or you will start fulfilling the stated conditions. Conditional promises, in other words, educe and demand what the Reformers called “works.” It doesn’t matter whether the works are moral or ascetical. The only response to the law is “doing” or “not doing.”
But if I speak to you an unconditional promise, what might your response be? Does it even make sense to speak of a “response”? Thus Jenson: “‘Faith’ is not the label of an ideological or attitudinal state. Like ‘justification,’ the word evokes a communication-situation: the situation of finding oneself addressed with an unconditional affirmation, and having now to deal with life in these terms. Faith is a mode of life” (p. 41). Because the gospel is performative declaration—i.e., it changes the linguistic world its hearers inhabit and thus changes the hearer himself—it generates the kind of response we cannot easily describe: faith is just breathing and thinking and sensing and feeling and trusting and doing—all on the basis of the gospel. Faith is living in the liturgy of the kingdom. “The faith by which one is justified,” explains Gerhard Forde, “is not an active verb of which the Old Adam or Eve is the subject, it is a state-of-being verb. Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not. Faith means now having to deal with life in those terms. It is a death and resurrection” (Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life, p. 22).
There is nothing to do with the word of grace but to either believe it or disbelieve it. There is also another possible response, which I suppose is but a form of disbelief—namely, offense and outrage. How dare you infringe on my freedom to reject you eternally! How dare you invade my personal space! (Recall Jenson’s formulation of the metalinguistic rule.) An unconditional promise intrudes into my life in a way that a mere truth claim or nomistic demand does not. An unconditional promise brings with it the presence of the promisor.
“But what if,” the preacher asks, “I proclaim the gospel as unconditional promise, and no one is converted or liberated from bondage or filled with the Spirit?” That is not your concern, dear friend. Your job is to preach the gospel and leave the results to God. Remember: the only hope for the salvation and renewal of your congregation is proclamation of the kergyma, not the legalistic exhortation to “try harder.” Your people have heard that message all their lives! But the law never converts; it only generates grudging obedience, self-righteousness, rebellion, and despair.
“But what if my congregation exploits the promise to live a life of sin?” This is a danger, of course; but remember that St Paul had to face the same problem. “Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?” The Apostle doesn’t backtrack or qualify himself: “Absolutely not!” he answers. “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6:1-3). Translation: the baptized are no longer the kind of people who seek to gratify the desires of the flesh. Through the gospel we have been crucified with Christ and are now a new creation. This is eschatological speech. This is the way we must think and talk if we really believe that the kingdom has been inaugurated in the Church. The only cure for sin is more gospel-preaching! Just know that if no one ever accuses you of promoting antinomianism, then you probably aren’t preaching the gospel.
As long as we preachers understand our task as talking about Jesus or about doctrine or about morality or about anything else, it will always seem to be a secondary, perhaps even minor, part of our ministry. But once we see that the proclamation of the gospel is an eschatological-sacramental event, that it is the risen Christ himself who is the herald and that through our words he slays our parishioners in their sin and rebirths them into the new life of the kingdom, then preaching takes on fresh and compelling urgency. It is the very unconditionality of the gospel, Forde explains, “that puts to death and raises up—at one and the same time” (p. 93).
“But surely you are not telling us never to summon our congregation to repentance?” Of course not. But there is a proper order to the gospel message. James B. Torrance makes a helpful distinction between legal repentance and evangelical repentance. Legal repentance follows upon the conditionalist promise: Repent, and if you do, you will be forgiven. The forgiveness of God is made contingent upon our repentance and conversion. Evangelical repentance, on the other hand, flows from the unconditional proclamation of the love and mercy of Christ: Because Christ has died for your sins, you are forgiven and reconciled; therefore, repent and walk in the way of Christ. “Forgiveness is logically prior to repentance …,” explains Torrance. “Repentance is the work of the Spirit in bringing home to us the meaning of Calvary—a response to grace, not a condition of grace.”
How unconditional is the gospel? Utterly! So preach it!