Implications and the Gospel: A Review of “A Cross-Shaped Gospel” by Bryan Loritts

The gospel is not about us! I have to remind myself of that fact often. Bryan Lorritts wants to help us all with that remembrance. He writes: “Are there some residual benefits that come from following Jesus? Sometimes, but ultimately we don’t follow Jesus for the benefits or blessings; we cling to the gospel for the glory of God” (97).  That is not to say, however, that the gospel doesn’t have significant implications for how we treat others. In A Cross-Shaped Gospel Loritts, the lead pastor of a multi-ethnic church in Memphis, stresses that the gospel involves both a vertical dimension (towards God) and a horizontal dimension (towards people). I love this focus; it is a much-needed one in the church today. I think it’s safer, however, to speak of the gospel and its necessary implications.

Loritts is writing from a place of real burden. He has seen the church’s failures, even first-hand. As an African-American pastor he has seen the ways the gospel has not changed racial tension. He also sees the ways it does not impact socioeconomic differences, political differences, and marital hardships. The focus on the upward dimension is key, but it must also translate into horizontal dimensions. He writes:

Church history has revealed that the force of the gospel has been severely blunted, and lives negatively impacted when we have divorced the horizontal dimensions of the gospel (our need to love and engage others) from the vertical (our need to love and engage God through His Son, Jesus Christ). Unfortunately, this separation has become the norm. (16-17)

The gospel is not about less than our personal salvation, and Loritts is quick to stress such a point. But it is about more than this. Scot McKnight has done a tremendous job of giving us the theological and Biblical underpinnings of the dual nature of the gospel. It is about both personal salvation and the coming of the Kingdom. We must remember both. Loritts adds, “In fact, the church’s historic failure to live out the horizontal dimensions of the gospel has at the same time made Christians quiet accomplices to such sociological injustices as classism, racism, and sexism” (30). The gospel doesn’t change us if it doesn’t also change the way we relate to others.

Loritts is not some social-gospel-heretic. He begins by reminding us that we must first reach up (towards God), before we can reach out (towards others). His priorities and focus are clear throughout the book. He is not interested in diversity for diversity’s sake, nor mere renouncement of possessions for the sake of salvation, nor does he believe in social action alone as sufficient. The gospel is about Jesus’ accomplishment for us first and foremost. Faith in Him and pursuit of His glorification are our chief responses.

But the pastor does believe that we can’t stop there, with the soterian element. Loritts’ interest is in applying this message about the cross-shaped gospel to a variety of real-life struggles. Chapters one and two focus on setting up the exegetical/theological framework to support this approach, but the remainder of the chapters highlight specific application of it to life. I love that aspect of the book. So much of what Loritts addresses needs to be spoken to more faithfully by scholars and pastors. Far too many churches exist for themselves and do not see the role that love of thy neighbor plays in their mission. The mission of the church, which I have reflected on elsewhere, involves so-called social ministry. But I also have some caution for my brother. I can’t help but wonder if it is misleading to identify this as specifically “the gospel.”

My concern is that we are infusing the gospel with an element of our work. The gospel is about what Jesus has done for us. Both in his death and resurrection for us, and in his transforming the world the gospel is identified as the work of Jesus. It is not my work. My “good deeds” are to be a response to that gospel, and outflow of a changed heart. I love what Loritts writes about, I believe in it and want to see it spread. But I also want to qualify that the gospel is not about me.

He points to passages like Luke 4:23-25 and 35-36 as support for his explication of the gospel. In these passages we find Jesus both proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom and healing the sick. Loritts concludes from this:

Jesus aids the oppressed and afflicted as well. In other words, the gospel according to Jesus is spiritual with physical implications; it attends to both the needs of the soul and the needs of the body. (20)

Loritts knows the Scriptures and he understands the obvious contextual connection between healing and gospel proclamation. The gospel of the Kingdom is good news partly because it puts an end to suffering, sin, and sickness. But he is wrong, in my opinion, to suppose that our efforts to do good to our neighbor are the same thing. Jesus accomplishes the gospel, not us. And while I readily recognize that Loritts would never say such things, and avoids any such language in this text, I fear that the monograph may be misconstrued to suggest differently. We do good as an implication of the gospel, not as a piece of it.

Loritts writes, “Some have actually counted over two thousand verses in the Bible where God speaks of His heart for the less fortunate; and many of these passages are instructions for His covenant people to engage them” (79). Statements like this make A Cross-Shaped Gospel important for pastors and congregants to read. And while I want to stress that this is more of an implication to the gospel than an element of the gospel itself, I also want to stress that I love this book. Read it and be edified. Read it and be challenged. Read it and remember the gospel and the call it has placed on your life as a follower of Jesus!

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