“What might happen if the common meaning of the word righteousness was entirely misunderstood by a majority of Christians?” asks pastor Chris Seay. “The short answer: the church would have a different gospel and would be a missing a fundamental truth of the gospel according to Jesus.”
In The Gospel According to Jesus: A Faith that Restores All Things (Thomas Nelson, 2010), Seay (a church planter, pastor, and president of Ecclesia Bible Society) seeks to set the record straight, filling out our vision of “righteousness” with something more than simple rule-keeping and religious acts. “Real Christianity is about enjoying the show, which is the declaration of God’s kingdom in ways both large and small.” (12)
What is Christianity all about?
Why did Jesus come and die?
What is the mission of the church?
These are all questions that Seay addresses in The Gospel According to Jesus, although the question of how to understand “righteousness” remains at the forefront. Seay defines the word this way:
“The best simple translation of the word righteousness is ‘restorative justice.’ God is stepping into our brokenness and making things right, taking fragments shattered by sin and restoring them to fullness. The reality is that God is calling us to take part in his glory, which comes from heaven to earth, and to live in his abundance, together. Seeking his righteousness is about being an active agent for his restorative justice in all of creation.” (12)
The rest of this book is the outworking of Seay’s definition of righteousness. I nodded my head in agreement through much of the book, and yet many sections were perplexing and left me more confused than enlightened.
First, let’s look at some of the positive aspects of Seay’s work. Standing apart from some Emerging leaders, Seay makes it clear that a social gospel is not sufficient to save. The book contains several “conversations” with like-minded church leaders (Dan Kimball, Mark Batterson, Alan Hirsch, Shane Claiborne, etc.). In these conversations, mainline Protestantism is faulted for abandoning the centrality of Christ. Seay writes: “We want the kingdom, but we can’t live without the king.”
Seay also makes good qualifications when he espouses key moments in the Christian story. You won’t find any flirting with pantheism or panentheism in regards to creation. Neither does Seay waffle on the exclusivity of Jesus Christ for salvation.
When it comes to defining the gospel, Seay makes much of the importance of understanding the entire Christian story. In the span of several pages, he quotes D.A. Carson, Tim Keller, and Rick McKinley. Then, Seay offers his own definition of the good news:
“The gospel is the good news that God is calling out all people to be redeemed by the power residing in the life, death, and ultimate resurrection of Jesus the Liberating King. These ‘called-out ones’ are rescued from a life of slavery, sin, and failure to become emissaries in a new kingdom set to join the redemption of the entire creation, groaning and longing to be redeemed.” (49)
Though there is much to be commended in Seay’s work, I’m perplexed at a number of points.
The first is admittedly more stylistic than substantive. Seay quotes from The Voice, a recent translation of the New Testament. If you think The Message sounds colloquial, try The Voice sometime. The text sometimes sounds like it came from a group of 1970’s flower people preparing to join a hippie commune. Take Romans 1:11-12 for example:
“I desperately want to see you so that I can share some gift of the Spirit to strengthen you. Plus, I know that when we come together something beautiful will happen as we are encouraged by each other’s faith.”
Something beautiful will happen? Sounds like Paul might break out the guitar and sing “Kumbaya” at any moment! I admit that this is an issue I have with The Voice, not Seay’s book. I digress. Back to the book.
When it comes to the thesis of The Gospel According to Jesus, I am not sure that defining “righteousness” as “restorative justice” makes things any clearer for the average Christian. Over and over again, Seay tells us that righteousness is not about keeping the rules and being religious. But when he gets down to the nitty gritty of “restorative justice,” lots of rules show up, just on a grander scale. Seay says restorative justice is ”what we’re led to do: to repair what’s been broken and interrupt the patterns of injustice.” (84)
So righteousness is not so much about morality, which means that sin is not so much about breaking God’s holy Law. Seay writes:
“Sinning is not about doing bad things or forgetting to do good things; being sinful means that we are warped in a way that fractures all of our relationships.” (91)
This is a good way of getting across the fact that our sin problem is bigger than our individual sins. Indeed, we have a sinful nature. But to make sin merely the fracturing of all our relationships (I’m assuming that our relationship with God is included here) is reductionistic.
Seay rightly emphasizes how sin affects other people. The horizontal implications of our sin are on full display throughout his book. But there’s little here about how sin strikes at the heart of God or how sin is breaking God’s Law. In fact, in the prayer that follows his chapter on sin, Seay leads readers to ask for forgiveness for all the ways we have turned in on ourselves in selfishness (102). Sin is directed against ourselves and others. And though I expect that Seay would affirm that sin is directed personally toward God, he doesn’t give this truth the amount of space or attention it deserves.
Later, Seay directs our attention to Romans and the doctrine of justification by faith. Here is where I got confused. In this chapter, there are good quotes like:
- “A person can be justified by faith alone. There is nothing anyone can do to earn the freedom Jesus gifted.” (129)
- “If we properly understand justification, we could never take our salvation for granted or look down on another ‘wretch like me,’ no matter how ugly his or her sins might be to us.” (132)
Yet Seay brings together Martin Luther and N.T. Wright when expounding upon the meaning of justification, as if these two theologians are allies, when actually, their understandings of justification differ in several important places. Those of us who are familiar with the theologies of Wright and Luther can’t help but feel a certain dissonance when trying to understand Seay’s point. It’s as if he says: “Luther was right to say that the church rises or falls on a correct intepretation of justification by faith. So let’s turn now to N.T. Wright (who disagrees at major points with Luther on that interpretation) and see what justification is.”
Seay does affirm the personal nature of justification by faith. But he quickly moves to cosmic concerns:
“If the righteousness of God is intended to make things right on a cosmic level, then why is the world such a mess? Because the arm of God’s redemptive work is ignorant when it comes to justification and righteousness and thus, in Luther’s words, the church is falling.” (135)
In other words, the world is a messed up place because the church hasn’t properly understood justification. Seay then provides a litany of present world evils as a demonstration of how the church is failing to engage the world properly. He goes further:
“We seem to be attempting to define Christianity in a way that feels manageable – keep the rules, go to church, do the right thing – but the cosmic work of God is so much bigger and more beautiful than that.” (139)
Like, saving the planet? Don’t get me wrong. I think the church should be involved in all sorts of activities that relieve human suffering – both temporal and eternal. But is the mission of the church, specifically, to resolve world hunger? To provide drinking water for villages in Africa? To pull people out of poverty here at home? Seay seems to think so:
“The narrow path will require us to join God in his redemptive work to restore the world and return it to its rightful state: paradise, heaven on earth, the kingdom of God, the reign of King Jesus. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but this path calls the church to be the unified body that manifests the presence of Christ as we redeem, forgive, heal, wash the feet of, die for, and serve the world.” (125)
So the doctrine of justification, which is intended to be liberating, begins to sound like more Law, only the laws are different than the religious rules we grew up with in Sunday School. It’s here that Alan Hirsch (one of the conversation partners in the book) pushes back a bit. He says:
“I do worry that an over-balance form the idea of justification as ‘gift’ to justification as ‘demand,’ because if we simply translate righteousness as justice of God, then is not exactly good news for us, because we all patently fall well short of God’s demands. It becomes another thing that is required from us, and it calls forth another form of the works-based righteousness that Paul and Luther were keen for us to avoid at all costs!” (141)
In conclusion, I can affirm much of what I find in The Gospel According to Jesus. But there are some problems here that cry out for more careful clarification. The last chapter contains all sorts of application (feasting and fasting, authenticity, community, etc.), but not enough about repentance and faith. The Gospel According to Jesus needs more of Jesus’ kingdom proclamation, which ends in calling individuals to “repent and believe.”