ANDY ANGEL is unhappy with grace — or, rather, with the ways in which today’s Church allows an emphasis on grace to eclipse the biblical theme of judgement.
Angel is Vicar of Burgess Hill and former tutor in New Testament at St John’s College, Nottingham. His book jacket features a large elephant standing in a room. For Angel, there is an elephant in the room of today’s Christianity: the Church emphasises unconditional love and affirmation, while sidelining judgement and repentance. Ours is a gospel for the selfie generation.
A particular target of Angel’s ire is Rob Bell’s 2012 book Love Wins, with its reframing of Christian faith around unconditional love and acceptance, and its universalist account of who is in or out.
Angel argues from St Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus taught God’s law, kept it, and taught others to keep it. “Jesus’ whole ministry”, he says, “revolves around the idea of judgment.” Angel unpacks five biblical words: authority, teach, obey, command and judgement. The heart of the gospel, then, is not unconditional affirmation, but sin and repentance.
Some readers will find here a bracing corrective to a diluted gospel. Others will be disturbed by how far the author pushes the pendulum back towards legalism. In Angel’s narrative, grace seems little more than an excuse that some Christians use to justify moral indifference.
But even the most sympathetic reader might spot another elephant in the room. Angel wants the Church to relearn a robust language of sin and judgement. But, in today’s culture, this is a language that most people already assume to be dead (not seeing themselves as sinners), discredited (redolent of Victorian moralism), duplicitous (reeking of hypocrisy), and distasteful (street evangelists ranting about fornication).
The language that Angel calls readers back to is hugely problematic in today’s culture, and he gives no clues to translation. “Gospel” means good news, and spreading it in any generation is about context as well as content. Whatever Bell’s flaws, he takes the missional context of today utterly seriously. Angel brackets it out. Simply stating that the culture is wrong doesn’t really help.
The Revd Mike Starkey is Head of Church Growth for Manchester diocese and author of the Faith Pictures course.
The Jesus You Really Didn’t Know: Rediscovering the teaching ministry of Jesus
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