This blog is having an
existential crisis

While I tinker with a new design, I’m also pondering how, what, and why I write here. I don’t know how long that will take, but you’re welcome to email me and see how things are progressing.

Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

What is the kingdom of God? Part 8: the gospel as a message of triumph

Why do the gospels represent the good news as being about the “kingdom of God”? What is this kingdom, and how does it relate to us today? In this series I trace the surprising biblical narrative of kingdom, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. Part 8 compares the gospel preached by the apostles with the gospel preached by evangelicals—and finds some important differences.

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 the evangelical church 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:

The fundamental element which is always explicit in these summaries of the gospel is that God has now established his kingdom. After the cross, it is even more specific:

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:

  1. Every person is required to turn to King Jesus from their previous loyalties to escape his judgment;
  2. 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. It is then 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. Justification, in other words, is the solution that Peter and Paul offer only once their audiences have acknowledged the problem and 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). 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 an entire epistle devoted to properly securing it—Galatians—and 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.

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 thousand 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—though some details may be—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:

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…

Continued in part 9, on the Great Commission as a directive to conquer

No comments (but there will be if you leave one)

  I don’t post ill-considered articles and I don’t sponsor ill-considered comments. Take a moment to review what you’ve written…