I am not ashamed of the Gospel
This is a guest post written by Paul Westerholm, friend of Many Horizons.
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”
In Grade 7, I went to see the Newsboys and bought their “Not Ashamed” T-shirt with that verse on it. I wasn’t ashamed to bring my private faith into the public sphere. While it was a noble sentiment, I’m not sure I had grasped Paul’s point. Paul points to the paradox at the heart of the Christian faith: that a convicted criminal dying on a cross two thousand years ago is the power and righteousness of God revealed for the salvation of everyone who believes.
I recently finished David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. He outlines the intellectual vacuity of naturalism and gives an overview and defense of classical theism. Atheism is parasitic upon a theism, existing as the negation of a certain picture of a “god.” Hart dismantles the claims of the New Atheists, demonstrating the continued viability of the classical theist tradition to (more) adequately describe reality. And yet, though atheism is parasitic upon theism, the relationship doesn’t work the other way around. I can dismantle any atheistic argument against theism without making it any more apparent that the Gospel is actually true. This “God of the Philosophers” might mitigate some of my shame, boost my ego, and place me in a position of power over others, but then I no longer find myself crucified with Christ, so that it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
If it’s the logical coherence of classical theism that guards us against shame, the Gospel—God’s action in history that actually saves us—is rendered unbearably shameful. The infinite becomes finite. The necessary becomes contingent. The one who has life in himself, who is Life, dies.
The foundation of our faith is a single event in history, born witness to and interpreted through the lens of a single tradition’s holy book, attested to by the active presence of the Spirit in the Church. It is unrepeatable, historically particular in way that offends our desire for disengaged, scientific objectivity.
In John, Jesus is accused of bearing witness about Himself. He can’t claim to be God and assume that we’ll simply believe Him: “Who else bears witness on your behalf?” The problem is that only God can bear witness to God’s existence in this instance. If something else is held up as the determining factor, it then holds power and primacy over God. It becomes “god.” To those who won’t trust His testimony, Jesus directs to His works through which the Father bears witness to Him. If they truly know God, they should be able to recognize the Father’s stamp of approval on Jesus. There is circularity here. And I think it is a logical necessity. Only God can prove God’s existence. We need prior knowledge of God to recognize God.
Paul, in keeping with the Jewish polemic against idolatry (Wisdom 13-14), appeals to a general knowledge of God anyone should recognize in creation (Rom 1:19-20). This is where Hart shines, the realities of necessity and contingency. In John 10:17-18, Jesus makes an incredibly bold claim: He will freely lay down His life and He will take it up again. He is the agent of His resurrection (The Bible also says the Father and the Spirit do this… the glories of Trinitarian theology!). The one who died is the one who effects His own resurrection. God has life in Himself. Jesus has life in Himself (John 5:26), and His Resurrection is His vindication.
Jesus’ vindication, the Resurrection, only comes through His death. Paul was an eye-witness of the resurrected Jesus and one on whom God had poured His Spirit as the guarantee of Paul’s own resurrection, the assurance in the present of the veracity of the event in the past. Proclamation, witness, is his primary posture: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel,” or, “God, I’m confident You won’t let me look like an idiot for trusting that Christ crucified is your power and salvation.”
Apologetics too often seeks to mitigate the offence of our position and to remove the potential for shame. We want Resurrection confidence without the awful, category shattering offence and paradox of our crucified Lord and the resultant need to daily identify with His death in order to know His Life. Seeking to describe Christian faith in a way that makes sense to those around us and defending against erroneous claims are important tasks, but we must recognize and resist the temptation in seeing these descriptions and articulations as that that holds us in Life and possibility over our otherwise inevitable nothingness in death. Unless God acts.
We trust that God is an active agent in history, the one who spoke the first Word, and will speak the last over all of existence. All of our words, descriptions, and defenses will be burned away, exposed as straw, wood, perhaps even silver or gold, by His Word. It is through uniting ourselves with His death that we find true Life. God alone, by necessity, can vindicate Himself and to my peril do I seek to find vindication elsewhere. The Apostles took the posture of witnesses, like John the Baptist pointing to the broken body of Christ in Grunewald’s crucifixion scene. And the Church continues in this posture, boldly pointing to the reality of Life in the death of Christ and trusting that God will vindicate our witness.