I had the opportunity to speak last month at Faith Bible Church in Murrieta, CA. And before I go any further, let me just say what a blessing it was. Having grown accustomed to churches who want nothing to do with the abortion issue, their show of kindness and support was truly remarkable. And for that I am grateful! But since I don’t do a lot of speaking engagements—particularly of the 45-minute variety—I don’t have a selection of canned messages from which to pull from. As such, I had to prepare something from scratch, or nearly so. The title of my message wound up being “Abortion and the Gospel,” and though its first three-quarters covered territory I’d traversed before, the conclusion explored a line of thinking I had yet to articulate. I’d like to flesh that out more here—and as I told the folks at FBC, there’s a good chance I’m going to say some things you won’t necessarily agree with, but my hope is that you’ll consider the claims I make about Christ and the claims I make about the gospel in light of the gospel accounts themselves.
As you may be aware, the primary impetus for my entrance into the vocational combat of abortion was the story of the Good Samaritan—as expounded to me by Gregg Cunningham. Before hearing that story in such light, I was of the opinion that abortion wasn’t my responsibility and intervening on behalf of abortion-threatened children wasn’t my calling. But what is the underlying warning of Luke 10? When it comes to neighbors in need—neighbors on the brink of death—I am responsible, and I am called. Jesus didn’t condemn the priest and the Levite for what they thought about injustice. He condemned them for what they did about it, or rather, didn’t do.
Some years later, it struck me that there isn’t a group of people in the world who are more qualified to wear the “least of these” label than children whose lives are scheduled to be aborted. In fact, if you take the two groups of people that Jesus commissions as his physical representatives on earth—marginalized young children (Matthew 18:5) and the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned and estranged (Matthew 25:35-26)—and combine them together, you get abortion-vulnerable children. That realization became the ideological foundation for my book, Love the Least (A Lot).
The central message of that book is this: if we fail to love abortion-vulnerable children—by failing to intervene on their behalf, we fail to love Jesus. Or, to put it in even stronger terms: if we fail to love abortion-vulnerable children, we risk being cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Now, I’m aware that such an assertion might sound like an outrageous claim to evangelical ears. Am I really saying that the way we respond to society’s castoffs is indicative of whether or not we’ll end up in hell? Well, actually, it doesn’t matter whether I’m saying that or not, because Jesus did say that—in no uncertain terms. Here is the conclusion to the judgment of the sheep and the goats, starting in the 41st verse of Matthew 25:
Then [the Son of Man] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then [Jesus] will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Those whom Jesus calls the “cursed” had an expectation of being ushered into the eternal kingdom, but Jesus sends them into eternal punishment—again, not because of what they thought, or said, or believed. They are condemned for what they failed to do. By contrast, Jesus tells us that the “righteous” will inherit eternal life—which raises an existential dilemma of sorts. Because isn’t it well established that there are none righteous, not even one? Wasn’t that one of the central tenets of the Reformation? Hold onto that question for a moment; we’ll come back to it shortly.
One of the things that concerns me about the evangelical church in America, broadly speaking, is our tendency to denude the warnings that Christ levels at church-goers like us, or simply ignore them altogether. We seem unwilling to reckon with the fact that on multiple occasions, Jesus outlines scenarios in which God’s so-called people get to the ends of their lives only to be told, "Depart from me; I never knew you." These are purported believers who have so deluded themselves that they are not even counted among the redeemed. “Not everyone who calls me Lord,” Jesus warns in Matthew 7, “will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of the Father.” And what is the will of the father? The prophet Micah sums it up like this: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God—a list that is reiterated by Christ himself when he condemns the Pharisees for tithing down to the nth degree, but neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). These are people whose religious credentials were impeccable—but they are condemned, not for their beliefs, but for their behavior.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. (Matthew 23:1-5)
Notice that Jesus doesn’t condemn the Pharisees for demanding righteousness. He actually affirms that, then condemns them for not practicing righteousness—which in this case was the failure to bear the burdens of their downtrodden neighbors. The Pharisees, simply put, didn’t practice what they preached—which is the definition of hypocrisy. But the solution to hypocrisy is not to excise Christ’s demands that we live righteous lives. The solution is to start living lives that are marked by righteousness, which is shorthand for doing the will of the Father. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees,” Jesus proclaims, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20). I read the following recently in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life:
Nietzsche believed that Paul, and later the Protestants following Luther, had removed moral responsibility from Christ’s followers. They had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ. This imitation was the sacred duty of the believer not to adhere (or merely to mouth) a set of statements about abstract belief but instead to actually manifest the spirit of the Saviour in the particular, specific conditions of his or her life—to realize or incarnate the archetype, as Jung had it; to clothe the internal pattern in flesh. Nietzche writes, “the Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the ‘justification by faith’ and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.“
Nietzche is almost certainly being unfair to Paul, but his criticism of our laissez-faire behavior is not without merit. Instead of becoming little Christs—Christians—we have become people who are often indistinguishable from the rest of the world, except for our principled insistence that our sins have been paid for—through faith alone—no matter what we do or don’t do. But isn’t it true that what we believe, what we truly believe, is made manifest by what we do, not by what we say? And isn’t it true, according to the author of Hebrews (12:14) that without righteousness, no one will see heaven? As I’ve thought about why the pursuit of righteousness has come to be held in such low regard amongst so many evangelicals, I’ve narrowed it down to two primary factors. First, we are hypersensitive to the charge of hypocrisy. We don’t want to be those Christians who—like the Pharisees—make a big show of feigned righteousness while substituting the traditions of men for the oracles of God. But instead of allowing the gospel to come to bear on the filthy inside of our cup, so to speak, we have simply accepted and conceded that the inside of our cup is a mess, as if that were enough. As if that were all God expected or required of us. And so we allow the outside of the cup to be as messy as the inside and solace ourselves with the notion that we're being so “genuine.” “You blind Pharisee!” Jesus warns in Matthew 23:26, “First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”
Second, we’ve taken Paul’s argument in Romans 3—that there are none righteous—and we’ve weaponized it as a means of destroying any ambition for righteousness. The problem with this narrow and isolated reading of Romans 3 is that it doesn’t accord with the rest of the Bible. It doesn’t fit the broader biblical narrative in which the world is divided between those who behave righteously and those who behave wickedly. The whole of the Old Testament—from Genesis (18:23) to Malachi (3:18) operates on the premise that there are two types of people in the world: the wicked and the righteous. This is nowhere more clear than in Proverbs 10-13. And even within Romans, Paul affirms the existence of “righteous” people (5:7). These aren’t perfect people, by any stretch, but the Bible still regards them as righteous, and so should we. Yes, all men have sinned. Yes, all men are guilty. But it doesn’t follow that all men are equally and totally wicked. The good that exists in each of us is the image of God itself—and in some cases, the actual Spirit of God as well. Biblically speaking, righteousness and sinlessness are not the same thing. Paul may use “righteous” as a proxy for “perfect” in Romans 3:10, but this is a linguistic aberration.
One of the oddities of Romans 3 is that Paul’s scriptural proof for the supposed universal wickedness of man (v 11-18) is actually a sampling of five different OT texts: Psalm 14/53, Psalm 140, Psalm 10, Proverbs 1, and Psalm 36. At least four of the statements Paul quotes are made in explicit reference to wicked people, who are contrasted in the originals against righteous people. It is only Psalm 14/53 which contains language that appears to apply more universally: “there is none who does good, not even one.” And yet both Psalm 14 and Psalm 53 declare at the outset that the “they” being referred to through the rest of the song are “fools” who deny the existence of God. So either Paul is taking these statements grossly out of context, or we have grossly over-pressed his argument. We should also remember that David is using hyperbolic language in Psalm 14/53. We know this because so many of his other works—like Psalm 11:5—demonstrate that David didn’t really believe that there were none righteous. Finally, since we can’t be certain whether Psalm 14 or Psalm 53 is closer to the authentic original, we probably shouldn’t be pressing too far or too literally into either one.
It’s also worth remembering that Romans 3 comes on the heels of Romans 2. And Paul says in verse 13 that it is not the hearers of the law who are justified; it is the doers of the law who are justified—even if they’ve never heard the law. I suspect that verses 12-16 were the basis of C.S. Lewis’ treatment of the righteous Calormene soldier in The Last Battle. At least in theory, it is possible to keep the law without ever having heard the law. Hearing the law is nothing, Paul asserts; it is the doing of the law which matters. Specifically, living up to the demands of your own conscience: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:14-17)
These are deep waters which don’t lend themselves to overly simplistic answers. It’s often asserted, on the evidence of Romans 10, that it’s impossible for someone to be redeemed apart from someone else telling them about Jesus. How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? Certainly this is the normal means of conversion, but are we really going to say that God can’t do it any other way? Wasn’t Paul himself converted in a different way? Doesn’t Romans 2 at least open the door to the possibility that the Spirit of Christ might sometimes circumvent the normal means of gospel proclamation? The Calormene soldier in Lewis’ story was not perfectly righteous, but he was categorically righteous in the biblical sense. That’s not to say that people who live categorically-righteous lives don’t deserve death, but perhaps we could say that righteousness justifies a person in the sense that it gives evidence that God’s favor—or Spirit—is upon them. Could a life of righteousness—which we could also call a life of love for God and love for neighbor—be an indication that someone is covered by the blood of Christ? For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.
Lewis’ argument wasn’t that the Calormene soldier was saved apart from Christ. No, Lewis is arguing that he was saved through Christ, as evidenced by his desire to lead a life of righteous obedience to God. The existence of categorically-righteous men and women in the Old Testament demonstrates that righteousness was possible even for those who didn’t know the name of Jesus, because Jesus would eventually pay for the sins of these righteous-but-still-guilty Old Testament saints. His death both justified sinners and justified God’s historic forbearance of sin (Romans 3:25-26). Somehow Christ's sacrifice works backwards and forwards and covers some people even in their ignorance of Him. In the Old and New Testament alike, “the righteous shall live by faith.” I don’t think this means that faith—devoid of any discernible manifestation of righteousness—makes somebody holy. I think it means that anyone who is righteous is living by faith—in both the existence of God and in the notion that he is a rewarder of those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6).
Over the years, because of my vocational involvement in “mercy ministry,” I have sometimes been asked a variant of the same basic question—this question: How do you find balance between presenting the gospel and meeting physical needs? Implicit in this question is an assumption about the gospel that is so common in evangelical circles, that it’s rarely even questioned. The assumption is this, that evangelism is proclaiming the gospel; meeting physical needs is not. But if you read through the New Testament, with an eye towards answering the question, what is the gospel?—the results may surprise you. Having undertaken this task myself, I am now firmly of the opinion that meeting the physical needs of the marginalized and oppressed is both an essential ramification of the gospel and an essential proclamation of the gospel, which is why it doesn’t bother me that Abort73 is not explicitly evangelistic. Or are we going to argue—in defiance of Christ’s message—that the Good Samaritan’s love for neighbor wasn’t “balanced” because it didn’t include a verbal proclamation of the gospel? Never mind the fact that the Good Samaritan probably didn’t even know the gospel.
While it’s true that the gospel is a verbal message, it is not only a verbal message. And it is certainly not the truncated version so many people assume it to be—namely, that Jesus died so we can go to heaven. One of the reasons we know this is because throughout the gospels, Jesus and his disciples travel the countryside proclaiming the gospel before Jesus died on the cross and before he rose from the dead and before his disciples had any inkling that he would rise from the dead. So what was the gospel message they were proclaiming? Matthew 4:17 sums it up like this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The good news is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. “And [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people”—proclaiming the same message as John the Baptist, who warned the Pharisees to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, lest they be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:7-10).
The only appropriate and effectual response to the gospel is repentance—and repentance, by definition, changes us. And how can we preach repentance in the world today without any reference to abortion? John Ensor has called abortion "the defining experience of this generation.” It touches everybody. The good news is not simply or even mainly that Jesus died to save us from our sins, so that we can go to heaven when we die. That’s part of it, but it’s so much bigger than that! The good news is that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth. God in human flesh has inaugurated the redemption and restoration of all creation. He has defeated death; he has reversed the curse, the proof for which is his bodily resurrection from the dead. The resurrection of Christ demonstrates that the kingdom of God has pressed in upon the earth and reclaimed jurisdiction—and someday, the righteous in Christ will likewise be resurrected into new and glorified bodies when the new heavens and the new earth are joined together as one. But in the meantime, we are left as ambassadors, heralds of the kingdom, through whom God is at work to redeem and restore creation.
If we understand the gospel to simply mean, “believe in Jesus so you can go to heaven when you die,” then of course it makes no sense to entangle ourselves with abortion. After all, most Christians believe that babies who die go to heaven, and some use this assumption as an explicit rationale for ignoring abortion. Their argument goes like this: Since babies go to heaven when they die, maybe it’s not such a big deal that they’re being aborted. Maybe they’re better off—which is a line of reasoning I find completely reprehensible. But if we understand the gospel to mean: the kingdom of heaven has come to earth in power and glory to initiate the redemption of the entire created order—thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven—then how can we not intervene on behalf of the least of these, our brothers and sisters in Christ, our unborn neighbors? If this world is to accurately reflect the justice and mercy and faithfulness of God, then how can we not make the elimination of abortion a gospel priority?
The gospel is the offer of liberation. The promise of liberation, from sin and death—and abortion. But how do we make that promise credible to a cynical and unbelieving world? A world that can’t see the risen body of Christ. Where is the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead? Where is the evidence that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth? Well, for better or worse, the evidence is us. The church. But if our broken and sin-cursed world is not being transformed by the spirit of Christ, through the lives of his people, if that’s not happening, then the message of the gospel is not good news. It’s nonsense.
Think about it like this. Imagine you’re a prisoner in Dachau or Auschwitz. Now imagine that a fellow inmate comes to you with good news, glorious news. The Allies have come, he tells you; we’ve been liberated. We’ve been freed from misery and death. You’re overjoyed, but then you look around. You see that nothing has changed. The guards are still armed. The chains are still on. The ovens are still smoking. Day after day goes by, with no signs of liberation—untill you realize bitterly that you’ve been duped. You see, the difference between truth—gospel truth—and pie-in-the-sky fantasy is evidence. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding—which is why we can’t evangelize in a vacuum, without being able to offer any indication or evidence of an inaugurated kingdom. The message of the gospel, in the absence of transforming lives and a transforming community, has no credibility. And as you may have noticed, the American church has a real credibility problem.
[The church] was silent when she should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven. She has failed to speak the right word in the right way and at the right time... she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and has not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, the German pastor who was executed by the Nazis for his efforts to end the Holocaust. He wrote that about the church in Germany which decided to not compromise their gospel priorities by entangling themselves in something as earthly, temporal, and political as rescuing masses of social outcasts from state-sanctioned death. While writing Love the Least—and trying to more precisely understand the message of the gospel—it struck me that our evangelical tradition seems to hold the words of Paul in much higher revere than the words of Jesus. And as a result, we qualify everything Jesus said against the teachings of Paul, rather than vice versa—and despite Paul’s explicit concessions that not everything he wrote should be attributed to God (I Corinthians 7:12 & 25). Could this be an example of elevating the teachings of a man over and above the teachings of God? I found that question troubling, and then I read the following in NT Wright’s Surprised by Scripture:
[Here] is a phenomenon about which I have been increasingly concerned: that much evangelical Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic has based itself on the Epistles rather than the Gospels, though often misunderstanding the Epistles themselves. Indeed, in this respect evangelicalism has simply mirrored a much larger problem: the entire Western church, Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and liberal, charismatic and social activist, has not actually known what the Gospels are there for… The central message of all four canonical Gospels—in their very different ways—is that the creator God, Israel’s God, is at last reclaiming the whole world as his own, in and through Jesus of Nazareth… God sets people right in order, through them, to set the world right. Justification by faith is the advance putting right of people in order to, through them, put the world right.
In Matthew 10, Jesus commissioned the 12 disciples as his bodily representatives to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and sent them out to proclaim the gospel message—this message: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Interestingly, this sending follows directly on the heels of what has become an oft-used plea for more overseas missionaries. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few! I’ve already referenced the opening of the passage. Here it is in its entirety:
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:35-38)
I have always read that passage in the context of evangelism. I suspect most evangelicals do, but perhaps it's times we consider this calling afresh. Let’s start by looking at what accompanied Jesus’ verbal proclamation of the gospel. It was the “healing (of) every disease and every affliction.” The miracles of Christ helped establish his messianic credentials, certainly, but Jesus could have proved his divinity in all sorts of other ways. He could have flown around the sky and shot fire from his eyes, but he didn’t. He almost exclusively limited himself to miracles of healing. The miracles he chose were miracles that saved sick and dying people from physical death. They were miracles that directly attacked the primary manifestation of sin on earth, namely, death. When Jesus proclaimed the gospel in verse 35, we know what the verbal message was. Matthew 10:7 tells us. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But he didn’t just leave it there. He acted as the great physician to prove that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. And notice in verse 8 that the disciples were commissioned to do the exact same thing: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”
Ironically, the Pharisees were great evangelists. Jesus tells us that they would traverse land and sea to make a single convert—only to damn that convert in the process. They “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” and left them “twice as much a child of hell as [themselves].” It strikes me as significant that Jesus didn’t complain in Matthew 9:37 that teachers were few or evangelists were few. He complained that laborers were few. Doesn’t that imply work? Real work on behalf of sick, dying, and downtrodden neighbors? I may not be able to miraculously heal someone from disease, but I can take steps to intervene on their behalf, to save them from pending death. And that effort isn’t an addendum to the gospel. It is the gospel—in action. The kingdom of heaven has come to earth. Here is the evidence. So maybe the burden of proof should be going the other way round. Instead of asking “mercy ministries” why they’re not more focused on evangelism, perhaps we should be asking “evangelists” why they’re not more focused on justice and mercy. Maybe we should all be asking, "how am I laboring to demonstrate that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth?" Because what if the visible church’s general indifference to abortion isn’t just an aberration? What if it demonstrates instead that we have a profoundly flawed understanding of both the nature and ramifications of the gospel?
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.