The last several years have seen numerous books asking the same question: What is the gospel? Some maintain a clear distinction between the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and how the gospel works itself out in our lives, where others wind up confusing the gospel with those implications. Given how important this question is, it’s no surprise that another author would attempt to offer an answer. In this case, it’s Bryan Loritts with A Cross-Shaped Gospel: Reconciling Heaven and Earth. In this book, Loritts covers a lot of ground at a break-neck pace as he strives to show the inseparable nature of the vertical aspects of the gospel with it’s horizontal outworkings in our lives and communities.
Throughout the book, Loritts does a wonderful job reminding readers that the vertical and horizontal aspects of the Christian faith go hand-in-hand. “When love for neighbor (orthopraxy) is tripped away from love for God (orthodoxy), I will eventually fail to genuinely love my neighbor,” he writes early in the book (p. 36). And again, “without a vertical relationship with God, our horizontal relationships with others are devoid of power and any eternal meaning” (p. 38).
Perhaps the most challenging and encouraging chapter for me was that on the gospel and ethnic diversity (“The Gospel and O.J. Simpson”). While the content of the chapter is really solid, particularly his challenging question, “Could it be that the reason so many churches express a desire to be ethnically diverse but fail to experience it is because they are unwilling to challenge people to sacrifice and give up their preferences?” (p. 71) I’d suspect that, if we’re being honest, most of us would have to answer “yes.” As much as we here in Canada like to pat ourselves on the back for being unabashedly multi-ethnic in our culture, we’re very good at segregation. In my city, we’ve got multiple hispanic, Chinese and Korean congregations, but very few churches are genuinely multi-ethnic. Ours, by God’s grace has become very ethnically diverse in recent years, and I’m grateful that this seems to be continuing.
But it’s not even this challenging question that caused me to appreciate this chapter so much—instead it’s his opening illustration that was most poignant. Loritts shares how he and his coworkers were all watching the O.J. Simpson trial, waiting for the verdict to be revealed. When the “not guilty” was issued, it was met with high-fives and celebration. What moved me as I read it was the humility of his confession, admitting that God revealed to him “a racist heart and an ugly dimension of my life that causes me to cringe today. . . . While there still remains a residue of racism in my heart, I’m walking the road of repentance. I’m a recovering racist” (p. 59). It takes both real courage and a confidence that comes from setting your hope in the gospel to actually admit something like this. I wonder how many of us would admit such a thing without being asked? I can’t say that I would, as uncomfortable as it is for me to admit that.
As much as I appreciated this and other portions of the book, it is not without its weaknesses. Frequently Loritts makes bold statements that border on caricature (“the church’s historic failure to live out the horizontal dimension fo the gospel has… made Christians quiet accomplices to such sociological injustices as classism, racism and sexism” is the most obvious [p. 30]). But the greatest weakness of the book actually comes from its basic premise—in desiring to show the need for a “cross-shaped” gospel (which is a clever illustration, by the way), Loritts winds up doing the thing that (I think) he sought to avoid: confusing the finished work of Christ with its implications (even as he desires to remind us that the vertical aspect is primary [p. 38]).
Perhaps I’m being too nitpicky, but his chapter on reconciliation, “Declaring the Whole Truth,” seems to most clearly demonstrate this. In this chapter, he writes that the gospel “is both my relationship with God and my relationship with others” (p. 109) and that it’s “through the blood and shame of [the cross] that a new community could be created where the orthodox and immoral can sit side by side, embracing one another. This is what Jesus envisioned and labored toward. This is the gospel” (p. 111). While there’s a great deal of truth here—the gospel does reconcile us both to God and man, changing our relationships with both forever—those are the fruit of the gospel.
The problem seems to be that Loritts is using Jesus’ summary of the Law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39) as a summary of the gospel itself. But when we do this, it changes the emphasis of the Christian faith to what we do and not what God has done, even as we are reminded that “the gospel says we’re not the center, God is” (p. 98).
The other concern I had as I read the book, even as I starred and highlighted the many wonderfully helpful things in it, really comes down to one question: What is the place of the Holy Spirit in Loritts’ cross-shaped vision? I see him writing much about how “the power of the gospel, and the source of the church’s effectiveness, only happens when we, the bride of Christ, love God with our total being” (p. 39), but there’s (to the best of my recollection) no mention of the one who makes that possible. In reading the book, more often than not, I didn’t feel provoked to action by any sense of godly discontent, but burdened by a weight that I cannot carry.
In saying this, I really hope that I’ve simply misread the book itself as the last thing that I’d want to do is misrepresent what Loritts is actually saying here. There is a great deal of good in A Cross-Shaped Gospel—however, much of it is said with more clarity in the works of other authors. And while I certainly wouldn’t tell someone not to read this book (because there are some helpful points in every chapter), it would not be my first recommendation.
Title: A Cross-Shaped Gospel: Reconciling Heaven and Earth
Author: Bryan Loritts
Publisher: Moody Publishers (2011)