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The gospel ain’t about you, but it is for you

My maternal great-grandmother, who died before I was born, had a saying that has been passed down to me. In a variation on our Lord’s words in Acts 20:35, she would say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive, but it sure is hard to give if no one likes receiving.” Every year around Christmas time, I think of that as I carefully decide who I will give a gift to, who will get a card instead, and who will get nothing at all. As I suspect is true with many people, that ridiculous calculus is based on a kind of internal pressure. I say to myself:

What is expected of me? Did this person give me a gift last year? Does that mean I am obligated to do so now? If I give this person a gift and he does not give me one in return, will he feel bad?

Gift-giving is a fantastic example of how the law gets into our bones and short circuits our ability to receive the gospel.

We have been having a merry war of late on Covenant over the topic of grace, starting with Fr. Jordan Hylden’s piece from several weeks back, followed by a piece from me last week, which in turn sparked a strong critique from Fr. Craig Uffman yesterday. In a nutshell, Uffman finds my explanation of the Reformation teaching about the distinction between law and gospel to be woefully reductionistic. He believes that there is no real distinction to be found between the two and that a proper understanding of the gospel leaves the salvation of our souls as a kind of dramatic afterthought. “But is the announcement of our salvation identical with the gospel?” asks Uffman. “That is, is the gospel primarily about us, as Mitchican seems to imply? I think not. Rather, the subject of the gospel is God, and what God is doing in the world through Jesus the Christ.”

Of course, I agree with Uffman that the gospel is primarily about what God has done in Christ, but I find it puzzling that he rejects the idea that what God has done in Christ is primarily for us. If it is not for us, who is it for? Did Jesus come into the world for some other purpose than to save us? Or, as I suspect, is there something else at play here, something that boils over from the human heart any time it seems to us that we are not doing enough of the work?

Along the way to making his point about the gospel, Uffman offers a more expansive definition of the law than I did, making oblique reference to Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker. I will freely concede that there are limits to the law/gospel paradigm for reading the Scriptures; indeed, in many cases a given passage in Scripture can be heard as either law or gospel, depending on the state of the heart of the listener. Moreover, it is certainly true that there is more than one thing that might be indicated by the use of the word “law.” Hooker’s expansive use of the term in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity covers everything from the ordering of creation to the ordering of the Church. The “Eternal Law is none other than Christ our creator and sustainer himself,” says Uffman. If by eternal law he means the Logos, the Word, by which all of creation is properly ordered, then I would agree.

That said, Hooker certainly understood the gospel to be a free gift of Christ’s work for us. In his Learned Discourse on Justification, he sets out repeatedly that “The doctrine of the Gospel proposeth salvation as the end …  salvation purchased by the death of Christ.” Hooker says it is a salvation given entirely as a gift. “We say our salvation is by Christ alone; therefore howsoever or whatsoever we add unto Christ in the matter of salvation we overthrow Christ.” Nevertheless, Hooker does not deny the necessity of good works, but puts them in their proper framework, not as things we do to complete the gospel and earn our salvation but as the fruit of a heart in which the gospel has already set us free.

As Episcopalians, though, what ought to be more compelling for us even than Hooker are the classical Anglican formularies. The eucharistic liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer paints this picture for us perfectly, particularly in the older forms, in which the service begins with the proclamation of the law by way of the Ten Commandments and moves towards the forgiveness of sins offered in the absolution and the partaking of the sacrament, followed by the Gloria at the end, which sings forth out of the hearts of sinners who have been set free by the cross.

“We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings,” says Article XI of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. But to me, the most endearing expression of this truth is in the classic prayer book Catechism in which the candidate for Confirmation recites all of the many duties that he has before God, loading them up, one onto another, brick by brick, as if building his own prison. The catechist replies — in the only place in the whole Catechism where he offers his own thought rather than simply asking a question — by saying, “My good child, know this, that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the commandments of God, and to serve him, without his special grace ….” This statement leads into the Lord’s Prayer and into calling upon the Lord alone as the source of both our deliverance and our renewal.

In his own explanation of the gospel, so very different from that found in either Hooker or the Anglican formularies, Uffman does the very thing he accuses me of doing by making the gospel about us rather than about God:

The gospel’s salvific implication for us is not the main point but a by-product of the gospel: we receive the gift of a new identity. We are summoned to be Easter’s agents. To make possible that ministry, we are delivered from bondage, acquitted, and invited to follow Jesus in making God king (Eph. 2:1-10). How do we do that? By offering ourselves sacrificially in thanksgiving in the form of cross-shaped lives (Gal. 2:20). Holy living that makes grace visible. (Emphasis added)

In Uffman’s model, the gospel becomes a work, not something Jesus does for us purely out of his own selfless love for us but something we do for him in order to help him achieve a greater goal: becoming “Easter’s agents” and “making God king.” It is extraordinarily curious that in making such a case, Uffman references passages in the Scriptures that so directly contradict him. Within the passage he references with regard to “making God king,” Paul says:

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:5-9)

Paul says that our salvation is entirely a gift, entirely free, entirely from Christ, and has nothing at all to do with our good works. Indeed, it is God who has made Christ king and “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” This is reinforced in Galatians 2:20 and the surrounding verses which tell us that we no longer live for ourselves, but Christ lives in us. As such, we have no reason to rely on anything within ourselves, but only on Christ’s gift of himself for us. “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal. 2:21).

The gospel is that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose for you. It is the for you that bothers Uffman. He seems to prefer the idea that the gospel is a partnership in which Jesus does a little something for us by rescuing us from sin and death so that we will do a little something for him by living the kind of lives that will show everyone that God is the true king of the world. But God does not need us to show anyone anything. His kingship is not dependent on our acknowledgment. Jesus himself feels no compunction to prove it to Pilate (Matthew 27:11). Why would he need us to prove it to anybody else?

The fact is, God does not need anything from us. To be sure, he expects certain things from us, things which we consistently fail to deliver, but he does not need anything from us. The Gospel then is not something we can do or live. It is not about us at all, but it is for us. God did not need to send his Son to live as a man. He did not need him to die in our place. We needed those things, and he has given them to us without any expectation of gaining anything back from us in return.

Here, I believe, is really where the heart of the problem lies. All of us, myself included, want to be our own saviors. We loathe the idea of a free gift from God in the same way that we might loathe the idea of receiving Christmas gifts from certain people, because we do not trust that a free gift really is free. We know there must be a catch. There must be something that we need to do to make everything even. This is the law at work in us, weighing on us, making us aware of our sin. And to be clear, such a law ought to be proclaimed from the pulpit in all its fullness. We do have obligations to God and to our neighbors, obligations which we consistently fail to meet.

Yet it is not the declaration of our obligations that will save us. Christ saves us. Thus, our proclamation must be wholeheartedly centered on that word of freedom which produces faith. As Hooker puts it,

Faith is the only hand which putteth on Christ unto justification, and Christ the only garment which, being so put on, covereth the shame of our defiled natures, hideth the imperfections of our works, preserveth us blameless in the sight of God, before whom otherwise the very weakness of our faith were cause sufficient to make us culpable, yea, to shut us out from the kingdom of heaven, where nothing that is not absolute can enter.

The impulse to want to give of ourselves for the sake of others is a good one. But until we receive the gospel as a free gift, and stop trying to buy it or barter for it, we will never really be able to give anything to anyone. Until we come to trust that the gospel really is a free gift, nothing will be able to set us free from the tyranny of our own hearts.


  1. Craig can most assuredly defend himself, but:

    First, I don’t see where he has “made the Gospel a work.” You seem to be reacting to the notion that we are called to participate in God’s mission on account of Easter. As Craig alluded to, this seems to be exactly what is in play in Eph 2:10. We *were* created for good works! The fact is we could not do them, but now, by the Holy Spirit, we can.

    The issue of Law vs Gospel is at the heart of all this. You two will have to settle the disagreement about the relation of Law and Gospel; you continue to set them in opposition to each other, and Craig has set aside that idea. I’m sure you all know much more than I about the controversy of the so-called New Perspective, but I am a firm believer that it has done great damage to the former notion of the incompatibility of Law and gospel, an incompatibility caused by a misreading of Judaism.

    As to what the Gospel is, I think we have to take into account the work of Scott McKnight. His argument is that to say what the Gospel is requires that we take into view the four writings called Gospels (and especially what Jesus says is the Gospel – e.g. Mark 1:15), the speeches in Acts where the speaker (often Peter) gives a definition of ‘Gospel’, and places where Paul gives an explicit definition, especially 1 Cor 15. In all these places, it is the Kingdom of God that is the center of attention.

    I can’t imagine Craig disagrees with what you describe is the *effect* of the Gospel on us. I take this as a central divide of those of us who primarily define ourselves as ‘Evangelical’ as against those of other Christian categories; just read in churches this past Sunday:

    “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)

    There are those who hate the word atonement, but there you are. There is no question that this is essential to the Gospel! There is no question that we *benefit* from the Gospel! Praise God! We needed “atoning for.” This point must be (and in our liturgy, is) a central feature of our worship.

    • Hi Charlie,

      Thanks for the comment. I’ll try to respond as best I can.

      You said:

      First, I don’t see where he has “made the Gospel a work.”

      In the paragraph I quoted, Craig says that our “offering of ourselves sacrificially” is a part of the Gospel. In fact, he says that it is a more central part of the Gospel than even the work of Jesus saving us on the cross which he refers to as a “by-product” of the Gospel. Of course, it is always possible that I have misunderstood him, but on its face it seems that in his view the Gospel is at least a co-venture between God and man, not something that Jesus does for us.

      You said:

      We *were* created for good works! The fact is we could not do them, but now, by the Holy Spirit, we can.

      I agree, as does our liturgy in which we pray that, having been filled with the Gospel through Word and Sacrament, we may go into the world prepared “to do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” But those works are not the Gospel. To borrow Craig’s language, they are a by-product of the Gospel. The Gospel is what makes it possible for us to do good works. Otherwise, all our works, even our best ones, are rags.

      You said:

      The issue of Law vs Gospel is at the heart of all this. You two will have to settle the disagreement about the relation of Law and Gospel; you continue to set them in opposition to each other, and Craig has set aside that idea.

      The law/gospel paradigm is important to this but it is not the heart of the matter. As I said above, I am fully willing to concede that law/gospel is a hermeneutical tool with limitations. And there are different ways of using the word “law” which do not always mean what Luther and Calvin meant when they used the term. Nonetheless, what is at stake is our justification, our salvation. And so even if we dispense with the language of law vs gospel, we are still stuck with the question of whether or not the Gospel is a free gift or a cooperative enterprise. I believe the Scripture teaches that it is the former and not the latter.

      Regarding what you have said about the atonement, I agree completely that it is the heart of the Gospel. The proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God is also at the heart of the Gospel. These are not separate realities. They are intertwined in one another. We should proclaim the Kingdom, just as Jesus Himself does, and we should proclaim the atonement as that which brings us into the Kingdom both in the here and now and in the fulness of time. Where the problem lies is in the notion that the coming of the kingdom is something that we are enacting rather than something that is already accomplished and perfected in Christ. This is why I take umbrage with Craig’s unfounded accusation that I am somehow placing us at the center of the Gospel rather than Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Gospel is Jesus. Full stop. And that is why we must be extremely careful not to muddy that glorious pearl of truth with the idea that somehow we can add to it.

  2. I admit I get lazy about blog threads, and put them out of my mind, but this post caught my attention:


    The question of “what is the Gospel” is a vitally important question. I don’t think there is that much difference between thee and me on what the Gospel is, rather a difference in expression.

    But we are far away from many of our fellow Episcopalians (In the link above, Tony Jones never gives a definition either, and I don’t wonder if his definition would look much like many Episcopalians with whom we have troubles).

    If your definition of the Gospel doesn’t have very near the top Jesus as Savior (not as metaphor, but as reality), then we have a problem.


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