Recalling the Central Gospel Message

I recently read an article in New York Magazine lauding Pope Francis in anticipation of his visit to the United States. Amongst the many typical inanities and ignorant statements one finds in such pieces was the following quote: “The pope’s religious message—that the Gospel should be joyful, merciful, and embrace everyone, especially the poor—is plain and direct.”

Here is embodied the notion that “the Gospel” is a sort of subjective concept such that the pope may tell us what “the Gospel should be,” as opposed to what the Gospel, in fact, is. Sadly, this abusive conception of “the Gospel” is not limited to the unschooled liberal media, which is in love with this pope, but is rampant within the Church, perhaps most especially within significant segments of the episcopacy. There is no doubt that this way of looking at Christian teaching—essentially, claiming Christ’s message is what modern man wishes it to be—will form the bedrock of the arguments of those seeking to challenge Church doctrine at the Synod in October.

This being the case, I would like to offer an objective way of looking at the Gospel by actually looking at the Gospel. There are, I believe, four principal themes in the teachings of Christ that I call the “Four Marks of the Gospel.”

The First Mark: Faith
The first mark of the Gospel is faith. In the teachings of Christ, faith forms the sine qua non for all of life’s actions—nothing truly good is possible without it. Faith is not merely an intellectual acceptance of God’s existence, but a radical trust in him. For the Lord presents faith as a force that is beyond reason, one that accepts that, for God, nothing is impossible. “Everything is possible to one who has faith” (Mk. 9:23).

That faith is the first test of sanctity is demonstrated in all stages of the Lord’s earthy ministry. The examples are many, from the Domine, non sum dignus of the Centurion, at whose faith the Lord is “amazed” (Mt. 8:5-13), to the woman who believes she will be cured if she only touches the hem of his garment, and to whom he proclaims “Daughter, your faith has saved you” (Mk. 5:21-34).

When the Apostles beg for an increase in faith, the Lord gently rebukes them, instructing that faith the size of a mustard seed can uproot a mulberry tree on its command (Lk. 17:5-6). It is by the kernel of faith alone that Peter walks to Christ on the water, and it is due to a lack of faith that he falters (Mt. 14:22-33). It is the radical faith of the Canaanite woman that caused the Lord to heal her daughter. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Mt. 15:21-28).

Just so, when he comes to Nazareth and is confronted by the unbelief of his fellow townsmen, “he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith” (Mt. 13:54-58).

Among the most profound and comforting words of the Lord in all the Gospels are those found in his simple exchange with Thomas after the Resurrection: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Jn. 20:29).

Thus, faith is the foundation of the Christian. It is irreplaceable, regardless of the effort of so many within and without to the Church to substitute the abstractions of “welcoming” and “inclusiveness” for this elemental precept of Christ’s teachings.

And if the first mark of the Gospel is faith, then the first mark of the Christian is adherence to the First Great Commandment, as taught by Christ himself: Man is to love and adore God above all things. Man has no more fundamental duty than obedience to this command, and there is no Christianity without it.

The Second Mark: Forgiveness and Mercy
The second mark of the Gospel concerns forgiveness and mercy. “Mercy” is a term much in vogue with the present pontificate, although it is, unfortunately, often used in a less-than-Christian manner to connote a sort of “acceptance” of whatever anyone wishes to do—another of the modern humanist’s prized tools for the dilution of Christianity.

In the Gospels, Christ teaches of a merciful Father who stands ready to forgive the repentant sinner. He dines with tax collectors and sinners, not to make them feel “accepted,” but to convert them. “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk. 2:15-17). Christ seeks out the “lost sheep,” always searching for the wayward, calling them to repentance. “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Lk. 15:4-7).

Sin, then, is an illness that Christ has come to cure. His “call” is not one of self-affirmation, but repentance. The call of Christ is itself an act of mercy. For instead of the condemnation of sinful man, God the Son announces his Father’s readiness to forgive the penitent.

Here, we must note one of the dangers of the age of Francis. While there is presently an effort in Church to please by touting God’s mercy, this effort appears to neglect the logical implications that accompany the very concept of divine mercy. For the fact that God is merciful logically means that man has a need for his mercy—because man is sinful. And God’s mercy is exercised through his willingness to forgive the repentant sinner. The parable of the prodigal son remains a popular favorite, though the sorrowful disposition of the returning son—“I am not fit to be called your son”—is usually glossed over in favor of the father’s rejoicing.

Mercy and forgiveness are indeed a prime mark of Christ’s revelation concerning his Father’s nature. But the Church must guard against the misapplication of this revelation, lest it become a means of mere self-affirmation, when, in truth, it is a call to self-abasement before God.

Finally, even more pronounced than Christ’s teaching on God’s mercy towards man is his instruction on man’s mercy towards man. The Lord is most clear and most insistent upon his injunction that his followers are to forgive their fellow men.

There is no limit to the forgiveness we must offer each other. We are to forgive the transgressor “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt. 18:21-22). Do not condemn, do not judge, but “be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36-37). In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord teaches that even mere anger or ill will towards another is a sin that demands repair. We cannot approach God with enmity of any sort against a neighbor (Mt. 5:21-26). The one human action (as opposed to praise and petition) referenced in the Lord’s Prayer is the act of forgiveness.

The Christian God is merciful to the repentant, and the Christian is forgiving. This is perhaps his most fundamental outward attribute.

The Third Mark: Humility
The third great mark of the Gospel is the call to humility. The mark of humility is closely related to the two marks already discussed, for faith, repentance and a forgiving heart are attributes of the humble man. Humility is the fundamental cast of mind of the Christian.

Christ’s emphasis on humility is replete throughout his ministry. The simple and profound parable of the publican and the pharisee plainly demonstrates the proper self-perception of the Christian—as a humble sinner in need of God’s Grace. The publican’s prayer is that of every Christian: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk. 18:9-14). The lesson of this great parable is especially apt for this moment in the life of the Church, reminding us that we are not to be self-righteous, and that the function of the Church is not merely to affirm our choices, whatever they may be.

The Lord links the humble heart with the Christian life of service. His discourse on true greatness is among the most notable of his teachings, summing up the conduct appropriate to his followers as powerfully as he does in the Sermon on the Mount. While the world equates greatness with power and control, this will not be the attitude of the Christian. “But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk.10:35-45).

Of course, Christ himself performed and endured the two greatest acts of humility that shall ever be recorded: the Incarnation and the Passion.

To be humble, then, is to be ready to serve both God and man. This is the Christian mission, and it will not be accomplished by the arrogant and self-assured.

The Fourth Mark: Judgment
As noted before, we hear much today about God’s mercy, and rightly so. But just as much as Christ describes his Father as merciful, he cautions that man will be liable to judgment before God. The fact that we will be judged is the fourth mark of the Gospel.

The most famous manifestation of this mark is found at the close of the Lord’s earthly ministry when he depicts the Last Judgment. Christ’s teaching on this point—that those who have failed to follow his commands will be subject to damnation—is undeniable. “He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Mt. 25:45-46).

The discourse on the Last Judgment is preceded by parables that also contain warnings of a final reckoning. Indeed, the Lord repeatedly stresses that there will come a time for each of us when repentance is no longer possible. Such a time came for the rich man who neglected the beggar Lazarus. Though he cries out in “torment” after death, the judgment of God is against him (Lk. 16:19-31). Even the Sermon on the Mount warns of ultimate judgment. “For the measure with which you measure shall in turn be measured out to you” (Lk. 6:38).

Christ urges proper fear of the Lord, for God can “destroy both body and soul in Gehenna” (Mt. 10:28). He dramatizes the reality of judgment in his famous exhortation to cut off hand, or foot, or pluck out an eye, in order to avoid sin at all costs, for what causes sin will lead to eternal punishment, where “the worm does not die and fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:43-48).

Of course, the fourth mark has long been out of fashion. Yet lack of attention to it renders it no less a reality than the other marks. There is mercy and forgiveness, just as there is judgment.

Much praise is heaped upon the “strategy” of using so-called “mercy” to attract the world to the Church—the nice Church that welcomes, as opposed to the mean Church of rules. One may ask, however, whether a world that heard the words of Christ pronounced in judgment might not run to him more quickly than a world that hears only what comforts and affirms it.

Editor’s note: In the image above titled “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” was painted by Alessandro Turchi.

Christian Browne

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Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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