Certainly we can resonate with the preachers from Augustine to Luther to a hundred modern day voices complaining that we have hijacked the Gospel and turned it into a means of self-glorification, self-help, and selfish goal seeking. In this sense, we can also agree that the worldly gospel being sold (literally) by many influential American preachers in their mega churches is a distortion, can we say heretical, abuse of the true Gospel. Yet at the same time, we must affirm that the ends of the true Gospel are indeed worldly -- but not the same worldly ends of those who abuse this blessed gift and truth of God's grace.
For sure, the Gospel cannot simply be other worldly -- its primary end is not unrelated or irrelevant to the worldly character of this mortal life. Its aims are indeed worldly but not exclusively so. Neither are its aims the same worldly aims of the snake oil salesmen who have turned preaching into a highly successful entrepreneurial endeavor.
The world belongs to God. It was His in creation and it was His love that sought out and redeemed a lost and fallen world. He came to reclaim that which was His own but which had been stolen from Him. He did not come to rescue man from the world but to restore the relationship which had marked the first days of His creation. He came to undo what sin and death had done first here and now and then in the new heavens and the new earth no longer stained by sin or death.
God has highly worldly aims for us. Our freedom in Christ does not await eternity. It is a freedom that we begin to know here and now, within the veil of this flawed and failed world. God has put us here, in but not of but still in. Though Christians have sought a refuge from the world, a hiding place from its temptation, trouble, and trials, God intends for us to live out our mortal lives fully engaging this world (albeit with the gracious Word of redemption and life in Christ, for us and for the whole world).
We were redeemed not only for eternity but for life in this moment. The difference between those who have distorted the Biblical witness and substituted our own aims and desires for the gracious goal of God is that we are set apart in Christ not for success, the achievement of wealth or riches, the realization of all our desires, ease and leisure -- not even to make this world a better place. We are set apart in Christ to be holy, to wear the clothing of His righteousness given to us in our baptism, and to love neighbor as God has loved us in Christ. These are worldly endeavors in a distinctly worldly arena. But they are not the same worldly ends as the people Ross Douthat argues against.
I fear that sometimes we as Christians and as the Church find it too easy to write off the world and to use the Church as a kind of refuge or hiding place against the world instead of engaging the world with the Word of the Lord as God has called us to do. It is far too easy to go to church on Sunday morning and to give thanks to God that we are not like those outside the Church (with their skewed values, tattoos, self-centered lives, moral equivocation, and disbelieving hearts). It is far too easy to see church schools as safe places where we can send our children so that the world is kept from them for as long as possible.
Our message to the world and to the weary who wear the wounds of disappointment, despair, and death is not to hang in there because eternity is coming. We proclaim the Christ who is really present. We affirm the faith and Church that cannot be overcome because of God's promise and protection. We rejoice in the Word that is yesterday and forever the same but still urgent in addressing the today of our lives. We find in confession and absolution not merely the means to unleash the tether of our failed past but the cause for renewed efforts to become the holy ones God has declared us to be in our baptism. We see the poor, the needy, the wounded, the hurting, the unknowing, and the unborn as the very opportunities to return the love that came to us unbidden and redeemed us, unworthy and undeserving though we be.
The answer to the preachers who have sidetracked the Gospel with their glorification of the worldly standards of success, worth, happiness, and love is not to proclaim an other worldly end. It is to speak rightly of the noble cause for which we are placed in the here and now, to which we have been redeemed to carry forth, and in which we prove to be the faithful disciples of His promise. It is to speak rightly of the worldly ends of the Gospel:
- forgiveness for the sinner imprisoned in his guilt and failure,
- hope to answer the wrongs and sorrows we know only too well,
- peace that does not depend upon circumstances around us nor depart from us when things go wrong,
- compassion toward the weakest,
- love for those hardest to love,
- holiness of life (not as the fruit of our own wills and desire but Christ living in us),
- defense of those most easily preyed upon,
- food that feeds the hungry not as the end but because we know the food that satisfies the hungry heart now in the Eucharist but not yet complete until the heavenly banquet,
- grace sufficient for our every need, and
- life stronger than death itself.