Spotting “Gospel Escapism” in Evangelical Circles

by Thabiti Anyabwile

I am an evangelical. That statement needs explanation.

I am a theological evangelical. I believe the Bible is the divinely-inspired word of God. I believe it is inerrant and sufficient. I believe a person must be born again in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Apart from this spiritual resurrection, we die in our sins and we suffer God’s eternal wrath forever. Christ Jesus, the Son of God, atones for our sin in his death on the cross. He provides our righteousness by his perfect obedience. There is no salvation from sin and judgment apart from that Christ offered in the gospel. None. But by repentance and faith, all that Christ is and all that Christ has done is ours. Evangelicals at our best are “gospel people.”

But being “gospel people” comes with a peculiar pitfall. It’s possible to be the kind of “gospel people” who use appeals to “the gospel” as a way of escape rather than engagement. Let’s call this “gospel escapism,” that attempt to flee from either the banality or brutality of life by superficial recourse to the gospel. These “gospel people” use the word “gospel” in their writing and speeches a lot. They think simply mentioning the word is the same thing as applying the various truths of Jesus’ life and work to the exigencies of life. It’s escapism because it fails to see in any deep way how Jesus’ Incarnation, active obedience, sacrificial and substitutionary death, resurrection, heavenly session and imminent return for sinners speaks to the troubled life of the sinner in any way other than deliverance into another world.

Let me try to illustrate with four comments that sometimes indicate “gospel escapism” is at work.

“The Problem Is Sin”

We hear this all the time. And, of course, it’s a true statement. Mankind’s most fundamental or radical problem is sin, our bent and rebellion against God and His holy commands. So far, that’s good Christian theology.

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But when we hear “The problem is sin” as a way of actually dismissing sin or turning our eyes from the variegated brokenness that multiple forms of sin produce, then it’s not good theology. It’s escapism.

We’ve heard people say “The problem is sin” a lot over the last couple weeks. A handful of people spoke of the sins of all involved, though they rarely got specific about what they meant. But usually it was Mike Brown’s sins that received attention. We were reminded in so many ways that Brown was “no angel,” a “thug” who deserved what he got. His problem was sin. That’s it.

But that’s escapism. It’s running away from a more complex view of Brown, of the history and systems that produce a Ferguson, and the many other persons involved. It’s escapism through reduction.

And it’s tragic. It’s really a strange thing when Christians point out another’s sin without remembering what Christ did to atone for that sin. It’s a sad day when Christians who know the horrors of hell fail to lament that a sinner may have met Christ as Judge rather than Redeemer. And it’s an almost criminal day when those that dared lament this horrible possibility are scolded by those who refuse to weep over a lost soul.

“It’s sin. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t bother me with empathy, compassion, suffering with those who suffer or anything of the sort. It has nothing to do with injustice or systems or the like. It’s just sin.” To be sure sin is always at work. But when was sin ever a mere thing?

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Spotting “Gospel Escapism” in Evangelical Circles | TGC