I'll just come right out and answer that question: yes, the Gospel is offensive--and the Bible describes it that way. Christians often say that we should never be offended by the Gospel, but I think what they really mean is that we should never be ashamed of the Gospel. Christians should freely and without shame embrace the Gospel as the truth on which they base their lives, but the Gospel, by its very nature, is offensive.
We live in an achievement-saturated culture that teaches that people will get ahead and be successful by their own hard work and best efforts. Our society is filled with hierarchies in which the rich, the powerful, and the successful are on top, while the poor, the broken, and the outcasts are all too often ignored and left behind. All around us we see cutthroat competition to do the best, have the best, and be the best. It's all based on who we are, and what we bring to the table, and how great we can be. And people who are deemed "more successful" than others are rewarded much more than those who don't have a long list of accomplishments to boast about, or a ten-page resume, or a seven-figure bank account.
But then the Gospel bursts onto the scene--and it throws all of our notions of merit out the window and embraces these great divine paradoxes that we may never fully understand. It utterly offends and shatters all of our concepts and preconceived notions of what's important. It says that who you are does not matter; who you are in Christ does matter. It claims that the most accomplished person on this earth isn't even one step ahead of the deadbeats when it comes to receiving the life Christ died to offer us. It tells us that the last shall be first, that the treasure of Christ is poured out into jars of clay, that all the strength and power of a risen Savior rests on the weak, the broken, the poor, and the persecuted. Because of what Christ has done, it doesn't even matter what you bring to the table.
The apostle Paul claimed that through the Gospel, God made foolish all of the wisdom of the world, and that God has chosen the weak, foolish, and lowly things of the world so that no one may boast before Him. The Gospel teaches that our hope comes solely through Christ, crucified and then risen from the dead. Nothing else counts--not our striving, not our efforts, not our successes. In Christ, stronger isn't better. More accomplished isn't better. More powerful isn't better.
And honestly, it's a shock to the system. It ruptures everything we know about how the world works and turns it on its head. God is not running a meritocracy, and that offends the way our world works.
It's offensive that our striving doesn't help. It's offensive that we can't do it on our own. It's offensive that our best efforts don't put us into right standing with God. It's offensive that our past accomplishments are deemed rubbish in comparison to knowing Christ. It can be difficult to accept, confusing, and even frustrating. But it is true--and it is good news indeed. The Gospel has the power to make us overturn our ideologies, change our commitments, relinquish our privileges, and dismantle our hierarchies. Our beloved merit-based system needs to get offended by the outrageous, ridiculous, extravagant GRACE of the Gospel.
Our society is obsessed with being politically correct and never offending anybody. But sometimes the truth is offensive. And sometimes, staring truth in the face and being offended by it--offended enough to be shocked out of our complacency and propelled toward change-is a good thing. But instead of embracing the offensive qualities of the gospel, we sugarcoat it in messages that are more like self-help, popular psychology, and the "prosperity gospel" than genuine truth. It's easy to sweep the hard truths under the rug.
The message that the cross of Christ wipes out even our very best efforts and shatters the wisdom of the world has always been offensive, and I think Paul recognized that in a way that we don't get today. In Galatians 5, he explained that he was being persecuted because his message refused to do away with "the offense of the cross." Paul embraced the offense of the cross and got his hands dirty with the Gospel message. And so should we! It is profoundly offensive--and that's the way it's supposed to be. 1 Peter describes Christ not only as the "chosen and precious cornerstone" but also as a "rock of offense" to some. And Jesus Himself asked His disciples on occasion, "Does this [my teaching] offend you?" He knew that his own message was bound to be offensive.
The Gospel offends all of our long-held assumptions about merit, effort, strength, profit, and power. It can overturn the foundations we've built our lives on. But if we're willing to let the message of the cross, in all its truth, offend all of our beliefs about how the world is supposed to work, we will be left face-to-face with grace.