The offense of the gospel

“Yes, but the cross is an offense. So if you’re being true to the gospel, you’re going to offend someone.”

This is one of the more common rejoinders I hear when Christians are accused of being unloving.

(The idea that it’s OK — perhaps even necessary — to offend for the sake of the gospel has come up recently, for example, as a result of the Chick-fil-A debate. It’s implicit in J.P. Moreland’s response to Matthew Paul Turner’s Chick-fil-A post.)
And it’s true. The cross is an offense. It was scorned as utter folly by many in Paul’s day, just as it is by many today.

The way of Jesus is a stumbling block for lots of people.

The question is, what made it a stumbling block in the first place?

“The offense of the cross” is sometimes used to justify any offense we cause, however loosely connected to the gospel it may be. Like our participation in the never-ending culture wars and the “us vs. them” mentality we’ve cultivated. Was that really the original offense of the cross?

Let me suggest the cross is an offense for reasons that have nothing to do with politics, gays, or societal decay.

The cross is an offense because it rejects the world’s idea of power.

By going to the cross, Jesus renounced any claim to power. By staying his hand — by refusing to wield a sword in his defense or summon a hoard of angels — Jesus showed us that the way of the cross is the path of a servant, not a conqueror or a culture warrior.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said during his trial. That’s why his followers didn’t fight to prevent his arrest. The kingdom of God doesn’t play by world’s rules.

To take up your cross, you have to lay down your sword, your placard, and maybe even your chicken sandwich. You have to give up the pursuit of power. You have to give up your “rights” — including the right to fight for your rights.

The kingdom of God comes through a cross. It will not come by any other means. To go the way of the cross, then, is to live like people who actually believe the best way to transform lives is by loving and serving others — rather than fighting, protesting, or waging an interminable culture war.

That is the offense of the cross. That is the “weakness of God” which, according to Paul, many find so laughable. We do not fight the world’s war; we have more important work to do.

I’m not against offending people with the gospel, but let’s not offend for all the wrong reasons. There is only one legitimate “offense of the cross.” And that is when we set aside our agendas and self-interest in order to love and serve our neighbor in ways that baffle a watching world.

7 thoughts on “The offense of the gospel

  1. I agree with almost everything you say here – but I still wonder, what is your position on Christian involvement in politics? Should we ignore it entirely because we’ve got more important things to worry about? (We do, after all.) If we can be involved, what should that look like? What should we fight about?


    1. Well (and maybe this is worth unpacking in a longer post at some point), I do believe Christians should engage the political realm. I may not consider myself Reformed, but I think there’s something to Kuyper’s notion of “sphere sovereignty” (i.e. the idea that God is sovereign over every aspect of his creation). So for me, that includes politics. My five(ish) caveats would be:

      (1) We should never be beholden to one political party or figure. (They just want to use us for their own gain anyway.)

      (2) We shouldn’t confuse our political views with the gospel. (Christians are going to see things differently in politics; that shouldn’t stop us from coming together as a body.)

      (3) We shouldn’t engage politics to seek power for ourselves; rather, we should engage with a “prophetic” voice. (For more on this perspective, I’d recommend a book called The Political Meaning of Christianity by Glenn Tinder.)

      (4) We should prioritize issues that concern the well being of others over those that concern our own well being. (So for example, poverty, abortion, and climate change would all qualify as issues worth being taken up by Christians in the political sphere.)

      (5) We should remember that “love your neighbor” trumps everything. We don’t have permission to look at those on the other side of any political issue as our enemies. We don’t fight dirty. We don’t attack people. We don’t play by the world’s rules. (For me, political attack ads are strong evidence of human depravity.)

      Does that help?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, again I agree with everything you say, but still I wonder what that changes practically. I guess what bothers me is – I think that a lot of people who complain about Christians fighting the culture war are really deceiving themselves. They say they don’t like the behavior (“this isn’t how Christians should act”), but really they just don’t like the side or cause those Christians have chosen. When people fight for their pet causes, they’re strangely silent about the supposed impropriety of it all. Quite possibly they’re silent because they don’t realize that they too are fighting in the culture war – they are fighting for what is good and right because they love other people, they think. Well… and just what do you think people on the “other side” think the goal of their actions is?

        “In the face of controversy and opposition, it’s always tempting to withdraw into friendlier confines. But *working for the public good is part of loving our neighbors as ourselves*. The pietistic impulse to simply focus on winning hearts and minds does not sufficiently appreciate the role of institutions and the importance of giving voice to truth in the public square. Conversely, the progressive impulse to stay quiet for fear that we’ll invalidate our witness is a misguided strategy to win over the world by letting them win. Either that or a disingenuous attempt to hide the fact they’ve already sold the ethical farm.”

        (My asterisks)


  2. I think you’re exactly right, Ben. One of the reasons people struggle with the Cross is that it compels us to a notion of God as vulnerable…but I think that’s exactly the sort of God we have.


  3. Just stumbled on your blog via AlterNet. Why is it I’m moved to tears on reading my own heart in the words of humans like yourself. We’ve come a long ways, most of us, in our stumbling, often very religious journey to get to this point in time, haven’t we? But to read words that defy the “logic” of so many, offered in the humility of those who’ve long ago given up on all the lies used to knowingly or unknowingly break the simple, real-world relationship between a man (woman) and his neighbor, just seem to do that to me. It’s like finding a single like-minded heart when you no longer demand or require an insular, corporate ennobling to live your life through. It’s like seeing Jesus smiling in a crowd. And the crowd is made up of every person walking (crawling, limping) through your life.
    And your five caveats for political engagement mirror my own. And, again, I didn’t arrive there without first exhibiting religious pride in “waging war against…” and “restoring America to…”. Having been so fooled and used and proud keeps me from throwing the stones I so childishly wish to throw, at times. So I just go about my life in the most vulnerable (good word, Brother James), foolish, unselfish way I can – and I fail at it as much as I succeed at it…which I’m ALSO good with now…now that I’m no longer out to placate a demanding god. Thank you Ben, whoever you are. I don’t need to know everything about you to recognize a brother living next door. 🙂


  4. Guess I always thought the offense of the cross was more personal. Although it is true that God uses the foolish things to confound the wise (providing victory over sin and death through the humiliation and suffering on the cross instead of rescuing the Jewish people from Roman oppression), the offense of the cross has more to do with personal salvation. The offense of the cross is that we cannot, by our own meritorious good works, provide for our own way of salvation. The cross and the resurrection defeated death, and we must place our faith in Christ and the way of salvation that he provided us. There is no other way. If someone is offended by the plain truth of the gospel, then they are offended by cross.

    “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)

    If someone is offended by the mere fact that I think abortion is a tragedy and a great evil, and I feel that abortion clinics disproportionately end the lives of poor children, then that someone is offended by my views on that issue. This is not the offense of the cross.


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