Robert Farrar Capon’s wife was watching a Sunday morning TV preacher when he expressed his disapproval. “The Gospel is vastly, alarmingly, mind-numbingly simpler than the moralistic, judgment-loaded religion they’re selling,” he said.
“But their stuff is at least selling,” she replied, “which is more than you can say for yours.”
She’s not wrong! Works salvation preachers do have a much bigger audience than grace preachers. Why is that? Shouldn’t people flock to the good news that God loves you and saves you freely in Christ without you having to do anything to save yourself other than believe in Him?
Why is works salvation so popular, while the faith-alone message is so marginalized?
Capon had a theory. He thought it was because people wanted to feel guilty and because religious leaders want to control them:
“Religion always sells. You can get people to buy almost any version of salvation-by-toeing-the-line you want to dream up. From ‘Don’t eat meat!’ to ‘Jog’ to ‘Pray six hours a day!’ to ‘Meditate’ to ‘Vote conservative’ to ‘No piggy things alone in the bathroom!’ to ‘Sacrifice a chicken on the solstice’—it will all go like hotcakes. Because the world wants to feel guilty, and the rulers of the darkness of this world are always happy to back up fresh batches of guilt to keep the troops in line” (Capon, More Theology and Less Heavy Cream, p. 126).
Are people addicted to guilt? I’ll have to think about that claim. I know people want to keep busy. They want to take care of their sins on their own, and I agree that preachers will keep them busy with endless things to do to pacify their consciences to “keep the troops in line.”
Whether or not Capon’s theory about guilt is correct, I agree with his next point:
“The one thing you can never sell is grace. The human race would rather die than give houseroom to the outrage of free acceptance, while we are yet sinners. You can get people to buy acceptance after their sins are under control, or only when their disasters have been forestalled by proper behavior. But all the Gospel has to offer is acceptance now: in our sins and in our shipwrecks. And without condition. With no guilt left to be expiated and no good-deed lists asked for. You can always sell religion. But the Gospel of grace isn’t religion and therefore you can’t sell it for beans. Any gospel that sells is, by definition, not the Gospel."
God’s grace doesn’t wait for you to get your life together before it comes to save you. His acceptance isn’t a reward for controlling your sins or doing good. Instead, Jesus gives you the salvation He promises freely, right now, while you’re still struggling, without asking you to fix the shipwreck of your life. Just believe in Him.
If you ever hear a TV preacher selling salvation, remember that grace can’t be had at any price because it’s free.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.