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Continued from part 7, on what we can look forward to
At the risk of oversimplifying, or sounding contentious, or biting the hand that feeds me, I am going to start this final leg of the series with an explosive thesis:
The gospel of the New Testament is cosmological—and the Western world’s moral crisis is a natural result of God’s assembly failing to preach this gospel as cosmological, in favor of preaching it as merely moralistic.
I am not impugning evangelicals for preaching a different gospel. I am only impugning us—or rather, the Lord rebuke us—for framing it in a way that is weak and lopsided compared to the apostles.
Let me explain what I mean. Here is a composite of the typical evangelical gospel I’ve heard preached:
You are a sinner, and completely unable to please God. Because God is just, he must punish sin—and so right now you are on your way to hell. But because he is also loving, he sent Jesus his Son to die in your place. He suffered God’s wrath so that you don’t have to. If you turn from your sin and believe in him, you will be forgiven and receive eternal life.
I have tried to give the strongest possible representation here, while still being true to what is typical. Many presentations are much weaker than this, but my concern is not with that—it is that even the strong presentations miss the mark. While there is much that is good and robust in this composite—nothing in it is false, and heeding it will certainly be sufficient to accomplish what it promises—it is nonetheless fundamentally skew, because it is fundamentally small. This becomes clear when we compare it to the gospel preached in the New Testament:
- John the Baptist first announces the gospel by warning people to repent—to turn back to God—because the kingdom of heaven is imminent (Matthew 3:2).
- When Jesus begins to preach the gospel, he commands the people to turn to God, whose kingdom has now come on earth (Mark 1:14–15; Matthew 4:17, 23).
- After the cross, when Peter preaches the gospel at Pentecost, he traces the scriptural promises fulfilled in Jesus, and culminates in a message about how God has enthroned him as the king of kings, and is putting all his enemies under his feet (Acts 2:34–36). When the crowd reacts with consternation about how to make right their treason against God’s chosen king, Peter tells them to turn back to God to have their sins blotted out (cf. Acts 3:19).
- When Paul preaches the gospel to the synagogue in Acts 13:16ff, his presentation follows a very similar structure: the first third is devoted to how God established a kingdom through Israel, through David—and how he has raised up Jesus as David’s kingly descendant. Like John the Baptist and Jesus, Peter and Paul both front-load the gospel message with the kingdom of God, and with Jesus as its ruler and savior—a term we (not incorrectly) read through a salvivic lense, but which in the language of the time was customarily used of kings and emperors. [“Saviour,” Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, eds. Karel van der Toorn et al (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999).] Indeed, almost the entire discourse in Acts 13 is about Jesus and his worthiness to be king, proved by his being raised from the dead; it is only after establishing this that Paul goes on to briefly explain the personal application—namely, forgiveness of sins. Notably, he doesn’t link forgiveness to Jesus’ death at all; rather, to Jesus’ right to rule—that is, his right to judge and to acquit. (I’ll return to this later.)
- When Paul preaches the gospel to the Areopagus, he preaches Jesus as the judge of the world—i.e., its ruler—and claims that God has proven this by raising him from the dead. He warns them that God now commands everyone to turn from their worthless gods to him (Acts 17:30–31).
Bear in mind that in pre-modern culture, trials by ordeal were a pervasive part of the administration of justice. You see this as late as the medieval period with trials by combat, and at least as early as the Exodus, with the Israelites crossing the Red Sea safely while the Egyptians were drowned. In the same way, when they crossed the Jordan on dry ground, the hearts of the Canaanite kings melted (Joshua 5:1), because they knew it meant that Yahweh had upheld Israel’s claim on their land. To pass through a typically fatal ordeal—usually water or fire—was taken as a divine vindication of one’s innocence (cf. Daniel 3:28–30; notice also the irony of v. 22). Thus Jesus’ resurrection was a powerful testament that the charges against him were false, and that although man had found him guilty, God had found him righteous—overturning the previous verdict by repealing his death sentence after the fact. This also significantly factors into the breaking of Satan’s legal right to accuse; cf. Romans 8:31–33; Colossians 2:14–15; Zechariah 3:1–2; Revelation 12:10.
- In Romans 1, when Paul prefaces his treatise with a summary of the gospel, he includes these elements: (1) as promised in Scripture, (2) Jesus is God’s Son, (3) descended from David according to the flesh; (4) was resurrected from the dead; (5) declared by the Holy Spirit to now be in power (i.e., reigning); and (6) is now bringing about the obedience of faith among the nations. We could also add (7), as a kind of presupposition, that the gospel is for salvation (Romans 1:16). Paul concludes Romans again with elements 1 and 6; presumably as a kind of paraliptic synecdoche—taking the first and last parts to stand in for the whole.
- In 1 Corinthians 15, he describes many of the same elements as Romans 1: that Jesus died—this time adding “for sin”—was buried, was raised, all in accordance with the Scriptures, and then appeared to many witnesses (vv. 1–9). But here, the gospel summary is a setup to move into an extended description of what seems to be in Paul’s mind its central theme: Jesus’ current reign. To refute the heresy at Corinth, Paul elucidates the hope of the gospel, which is that everything will be made subject to Jesus the sovereign king; and that when this is finally completed, we will all be raised from the dead to live in his kingdom (vv. 20–28).
The fundamental element which is always explicit in these summaries of the gospel is that God has now established his kingdom. This is why the Greek word euangelion, which we translate gospel, is used in the New Testament: the term had already acquired the technical meaning in classical Greek of a message of victory. [ The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 2 ed. Colin Brown (Zondervan, 1976), 107.] By the time of Jesus, the terms “gospel” and “savior” were used together commonly to refer to the (ostensibly) glad tidings of an emperor establishing his rule. A “gospel” was a message of triumph proclaimed on behalf of a “savior” who had brought order, harmony and healing by taking dominion upon his shoulders—what in Hebrew you might call a sar shalom, a prince of peace (cf. Isaiah 9:6; 60:1–2; Luke 4:16–21).
In the gospels themselves, this is primarily anticipatory; the message of the kingdom being established through the ministry of Jesus. After the cross, every time the gospel is summarized it is even more specific on this central point:
1. God has now established his eternal kingdom through the vindicating resurrection of his chosen king, Jesus.
Two other elements are also always implicit on the surface, and often completely explicit:
- Every person is required to turn to King Jesus from their previous loyalties to escape his judgment;
- When we do, our sins will be blotted out and we will inherit eternal life in his kingdom.
We could quibble and say that the requirement to believe the gospel is a separate element also—but this seems confused to me. Obviously one must believe the message to act on it, but this is just a standard feature of any discourse, and so it is, as philosophers would say, trivially true and thus uninteresting.
The key point I want to make here is that when the New Testament abbreviates the gospel holistically—unless I have missed some other place—it always does so by presenting Jesus as the risen and reigning king, and demanding a response to his impending judgment. The gospel, in other words, is the message of who Jesus is and what he has done.
It is then generally the effect of our response, and because of his kingly right to judge, that we receive and have confidence in our personal vindication before his Father. In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 15, justification—but also glorification—is presupposed as the result of the gospel rather than an element in its message; in Acts 2 and 17 it is omitted entirely, pending the audience’s response; in Acts 13 it is a more central benefit of Jesus’ kingship. Justification, in other words, is the result of Jesus’ triumph over every other power, and often is the solution that Peter and Paul offer only once their audiences have declared their loyalties—whether to Jesus, or whether to themselves and their gods.
Jesus’ death receives even less focus. I’m not suggesting that the atonement doesn’t underwrite our justification; obviously it does (e.g., Romans 5:9). [Indeed, I have written extensively on the theological and pastoral importance of getting this right: D. Bnonn Tennant, On the atonement (December 2008/July 2016).] But I am pointing out that in the Bible’s own gospel summaries, our salvation is not generally framed within Jesus’ death for sin. Jesus’s death is not even always mentioned explicitly. It is only linked to atonement once (1 Corinthians 15), and is half the time omitted entirely (Acts 17; Romans 1). Rather, it is the resurrection which receives focus.
This is true sometimes even in more focused discussions of justification, because the resurrection is God’s acquittal of Jesus through the overturning of his death sentence—which in turn is the basis for our own acquittal before him. See for instance Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:17.
So here’s my worry:
Whereas the apostles front-load the gospel with Jesus’ resurrection for worldwide kingship, evangelicals front-load it with his death for sin. Thus, whereas the New Testament’s gospel is a message about all-encompassing cosmic restoration through Jesus’ resurrection and enthronement, today’s gospel is a message about individual moral restoration through Jesus’ death and atonement.
I don’t think atonement for individual sin is unimportant. I don’t think that justification is unimportant. The personal moral element of the gospel is so important that we have some kind of instruction about it in every book of the Bible. God certainly wants us to be his people, and that is only possible with personal moral restoration. But this personal moral element is not the core message of the gospel in any of the places it is summarized or preached holistically in the New Testament. If we take a focused discussion, like that in Galatians, of this one element—indeed, a focused discussion of one component of this one element—and then treat it as normative for the whole gospel without regard to how the apostles themselves summarized that gospel, we will certainly produce a distorted picture.
To understand the gospel as a holistic message, we need to look at the places it is presented as such. To know what it is fundamentally about, we need to look at the places where this is presented most simply (e.g. Mark 1:14–15). Looking at the didactic parts of Scripture that zero in on some or other key element of the gospel is only fruitful once we have the whole picture in place—otherwise we’ll end up extremely unbalanced.
So without diminishing the importance of Jesus’ death, atonement, and justification of sinners, these are not the gospel. They are elements in, and effects of the gospel. The gospel achieves individual justification—but only because of its whole object, Jesus the cosmic king. Within the context of the kingdom theology I’ve articulated, the gospel is the triumphant message of God’s vindication of his human king, to take back Adam’s kingdom from both the gods and the guilt that previously enslaved us, and to restore the cosmos under his rule.
But this brings me to the sixty-four kilo-dollar question:
Why does it matter?
My argument is essentially that evangelicalism makes the gospel about Jesus’ atonement, and our justification. Again, I am speaking to what is typical—varying theological streams finesse this with varying degrees of robustitude. Nonetheless, in every stream, the gospel is typically reduced from a cosmological message about Jesus’ kingship, to a moralistic message about personal salvation.
This matters, not just because it isn’t the right way to present the gospel, but because framing it this way has enormous follow-on effects—some of which you can probably already see given the kingdom theology I’ve articulated. A moralistic gospel sees less than a cosmological one. Because personal moral restoration is at the heart of the evangelical gospel, its vision naturally shrinks to the individual level. To prove this, let me simply ask how many evangelicals you know who have a clear view of at least the broad strokes of kingdom theology that I’ve canvassed in this series? They lack this view, not because the broad strokes are obscure, but because the way they think about the gospel effectively precludes it from being the peak of a redemptive-historical trajectory that involves cosmic rule. What they tend to see instead is a trajectory of individual salvation, drawn together perhaps in God’s election of a corporate body. So, for instance:
- They see the world in John 3:16 as being all individuals, rather than a kingdom;
- They think of salvation in terms of going to heaven, rather than a renewed earth;
- They think of the local assembly as a club to be joined (or not), rather than as one household within God’s kingdom, through which his family rules itself, and works to establish his rule in the world;
- They don’t think about the rulers in the spiritual places much at all, and certainly deny the existence of other gods.
But these are just minor symptoms compared to the major problems that arise. When we pare down the gospel until all that remains is the personal moral angle, we end up with a faith that hopes for less, that thus demands less, and therefore ultimately achieves less. To explain what I mean, we need to now turn to the Great Commission itself…