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Continued from part 8, on the gospel as a message of triumph
I have alleged that the evangelical gospel, being moralistic rather than cosmological, hopes for less, thus demands less, and therefore ultimately achieves less. This reflects my thesis that the Western cultural crisis is the natural consequence of preaching a moralistic gospel.
To begin to now illustrate what I mean, and how serious the ramifications are for every aspect of our effectiveness as God’s viceroys, let me ask you a simple question:
What is our mission as Christians?
Any Christian can probably answer this—but the devil is in the details. How about this:
Our mission is to go and make disciples in all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
At first blush that seems right—but if you are paying close attention, you will notice that I have changed a word…and left out a bunch of others. This isn’t quite what the original mission briefing actually said. The marching orders Jesus gave were more specific, and more detailed:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you—and behold, I am with you all the days, until the end of the age. Matthew 28:18–20
This commission is obviously for the assembly at large, given that the original disciples died well before the end of the age—as, no doubt, shall we. So this is not merely a general order; it is a standing order; and not merely a standing order, but the standing order—our Prime Directive. The Great Commission is General Order 1, as issued by the commander-in-chief of the kingdom of God. As such, while it is the task of the assembly’s various leaders to direct those under them to enact this order, it is also the duty of every one of us to uphold it, promote it, and work towards its success.
But to do this, we need to understand exactly what it is we’re upholding, promoting, and working towards.
And therein lies a problem, given the evangelical gospel of personal moral restoration—personal belief in a personal savior.
As we’ve seen, the full gospel is the message that the kingdom of God is triumphing over the kingdom of Satan, because God has established a new king, Jesus, who is completely righteous and worthy to rule, and has therefore been given all authority in heaven and on earth. The rulers and authorities, the cosmic powers over this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places, are no longer in command; they are under God’s anointed human king.
A key point here is that Jesus is presently ruling—all authority has been given to him, as he told the disciples in the original mission briefing. He is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high (1 Peter 3:22; Hebrews 1:3; 12:2; Ephesians 1:20; Daniel 7:13–14).
But what is Jesus doing with this rule? Is he just waiting for individuals to invite him into their hearts? Is he holding his breath for people to accept the wonderful plan he has for their lives? Is he just chilling around up there, hoping for one of his children to finally advise the last unreached people-group about him, so the end can come (Matthew 24:14)?
Is he hanging tight until then, waiting for the time when he can establish his kingdom?
No. Hell no.
He is currently exercising his rule. He is right now establishing his kingdom. He is at this very moment reigning until he has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25; Psalm 110:1; Acts 2:34–35). I’m not talking about general providence. God has always reigned through general providence, and if that was all the gospel was saying, it wouldn’t be very interesting. The Son of God was doing general providence before the cross, but he wasn’t putting all his enemies under his feet.
No—Jesus is putting his enemies under his feet in the same way that any king does: by conquering through battle. It is his assembled people who assault the gates of hell (Matthew 16:17); it is his soldiers who engage in personal combat with the angels who oppose him (Ephesians 6:12–13); it is his army who sets up siege-works to tear down strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:5). He is, after all, not only a man of war himself (Exodus 15:3), but the Lord of hosts (1 Samuel 4:4; Exodus 12:41). Hosts means armies.
He is establishing his kingdom and putting every single one of his enemies under his feet through his assembly. Through the Great Commission.
Christians are representatives of the king. We are, as it were, ambassadors with swords (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:20; Matthew 10:34). You cannot fail to notice, when reading the Great Commission, that it is predicated on Jesus’ authority:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…teaching them… Matthew 28:18–20
As commentators are quick to note, it is the making disciples which is the main verb here: that is the action Jesus is commanding of us. It is an analogy to and an extension of the original kingdom commission that God gave to his viceroys Adam and Noah (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). We fulfill it in three ways: by going, by baptizing, and by teaching. Each of these is predicated on Jesus’ authority: it is because he has been given all authority that we are to go, to baptize, to teach. Each is an exercise of authority on behalf of Jesus:
- We go into enemy-occupied territory, commanding that everyone turn from their rebellion and bend the knee to our king (Acts 17:30–31), falling on his mercy (Acts 2:21), because it is his territory, and he will one day judge those who live there;
- We baptize those who obey, as a public repudiation of their former wicked loyalties, and as a pledge of allegiance to, and identification with, the rightful king (1 Peter 3:21); [ D. Bnonn Tennant, Baptism as a pledge of allegiance (June 2017).]
- We teach within the structure of the assembly, as our elders exercise their authority to speak on behalf of God to instruct, reprove, exhort, and train in righteousness unto the full obedience of faith (Romans 16:26; 2 Timothy 3:16–4:2).
But the striking thing I want to draw your attention to here is who we are supposed to do this with:
God’s people are commanded to make disciples of all the nations.
The moralistic gospel hopes for less
In the Great Commission, Jesus does not say, “Go and make disciples in all the nations.” He does not say, “Go and make disciples of citizens of the nations.” He does not say, “Go and bring disciples out from the nations.” His explicit focus is the nations themselves: it is they, as corporate entities comprised of and ruled by individuals, who are to be made disciples. The nations themselves are to be “trained for the kingdom of heaven”—to borrow the ESV’s rendering from Matthew 13:52 of the same lemma for make disciples. This is the fulfillment of Psalm 2, which speaks of how Yahweh laughs at the nations who rage and plot pointlessly against him. Why? Here is the reason it gives:
7 I will tell the decree;
Yahweh said to me: “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask from me and I will make the nations your heritage, [cf. Psalm 82:8]
and your possession the ends of the earth.
9 You will break them with an iron rod.
Like a potter’s vessel you will shatter them.”
10 So then, O kings, be wise.
Be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve Yahweh with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son
lest he be angry and you perish on the way,
for his anger burns quickly.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Psalm 2:7–12
Paul begins and ends the book of Romans by explicitly describing the gospel in the same way, saying that according to God’s declaration that Jesus is now crowned as the Son-of-God-in-power—and its corollary that all the other sons of God are no longer in power—it was Paul’s task to bring about “the obedience of faith among all the nations” (Romans 1:4–5; 16:26; cf. Romans 15:18). These are his very first and very last words in Romans, summarizing the entire purpose of the gospel as bringing about this subservience (cf. 1 Peter 1:2).
Paul was aware of the promise in Psalm 86:8–10 that all the nations will come and bow down before the Lord and glorify his name. He was aware of the promise in Isaiah 11–12 that when the shoot came from the stump of Jesse, he would make the predatory nations lie down with God’s lambs, and it would end with the earth being full of the knowledge of Yahweh as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). He was aware that Pentecost was the overt beginning of this process through the reversal of Babel: that just as God had broken down his kingdom by having the people hear different languages when they spoke to each other in their one tongue, so he had begun to rebuild his kingdom by having the people hear one tongue when they spoke to each other in their different languages. Pentecost publicly signaled his reinheritance of all peoples unto the obedience of faithfulness, after his disinheritance of them for their disobedience of idolatry. This is surely why Paul went to such trouble to seek an audience with Caesar (Acts 25:11 etc); and why he instructed Timothy to pray specifically for kings and all those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1–4). Since Jesus has deposed the gods of the nations due to their corrupt rule (Psalm 82:6–8), and since all dominion is now placed on him, so now all authorities must reform their rule to act as his proxies, and to represent his reign.
He is their king.
This is why Daniel 2:44 straightforwardly says that, when the God of heaven sets up the kingdom that shall never be destroyed, it shall break in pieces all the other kingdoms and bring them to an end—it alone shall stand forever. Daniel 7 recapitulates this theme, saying that:
To him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
And the kingdom and the dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;
his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey him. Daniel 7:14, 27
To put this in blunt, modern parlance, the cosmological gospel of the apostles is postmillennial. It expects Jesus to actually put all of his enemies beneath his feet before he returns to depose the final tyrant, death (1 Corinthians 15:25–26). It expects him to actually establish his kingdom at the expense of all others; to actually destroy all dominions opposed to him; to actually reign over all the nations by the time he is done.
It expects the yeast to actually leaven the whole lump (Matthew 13:33).
By and large, this is not the expectation of the evangelical gospel. By focusing on a message of personal moral restoration, it has abandoned the greater expectation of cosmic restoration. It does not expect it, so it does not hope for it. Because evangelicals treat the gospel as a personal entreaty to individuals to exercise personal faith, they end up with a private religion, practiced behind closed doors in the designated areas, and occasionally brought awkwardly into the public square for evangelism—but certainly never into the public office, which as we all know is secular. Christians aren’t to represent Jesus as if he actually ruled their nation.
Some people prefer the term optimistic amillennialism to postmillennialism, because they see the postmil view placing its eschatological hope in transformation of the world, rather than in Jesus’ return. [For an example of the supposed distinction between postmil and optamil, see for instance the discussion in Vern Poythress, 2 Thessalonians 1 Supports Amillennialism, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (37/4) (1995), 529–38.] While I agree that triumphalism or transformationalism carry dangers, and must be attenuated against more pessimistic passages like Matthew 13:36–43 (which fall directly after ones like Matthew 13:33!) surely the difference here is merely one of emphasis. Creating yet another eschatological label hardly seems a good solution—especially since amillennialism technically refers to a view without a millennial reign, and sees the church age in terms of peaks and troughs that ultimately average out. As I have just argued, this is completely wrong. Thus I prefer the term postmillennialism—and if anyone asks for clarification, I will further say that the Bible depicts the regenerate, rather than regeneration, holding sway over all people by the time of the second coming.
The moralistic gospel demands less
Because it hopes only for personal faith, and for a state that will leave us in peace to practice it, the evangelical gospel is blind to the demand of Jesus that we disciple the nations—i.e., that we train them in righteousness. Because the evangelical gospel doesn’t place itself at the apex of the trajectory of Adam’s kingdom, it doesn’t see the Great Commission as the means of God’s reinheritance of the nations into a single kingdom united by his rule. And because the evangelical gospel doesn’t preach Jesus as the Son of God now in power, nor Christians as his authorized representatives, it cannot orient itself confidently against all the other sons of God striving to maintain power, nor their unwitting representatives.
The gospel we hear today is rather a message about what Jesus has done for you—and how you can secure the benefits of that work. This is obviously not, in itself, unbiblical—yet nonetheless it fundamentally reverses the dynamic of power that the apostles preached:
Whereas the apostles’ gospel was a challenge for individuals to serve Jesus, the evangelical gospel is an offer for Jesus to serve individuals.
The means of securing Jesus’ service is given as belief. In a strong presentation, this belief is couched in terms of trust, and is coupled with repentance. But because the focus is on personal moralism, the repentance is framed negatively, as a turning from sin, and the trust is framed in terms of the atonement.
Compare this to the response demanded by the apostles’ cosmological gospel. Since Jesus is the enthroned king, the message is not primarily an offer to receive right standing before God, but rather a challenge to bow the knee to our rightful sovereign. Right standing—as with any king—is a benefit then conferred as a result of our fealty, and his own faithfulness. We give our loyal obedience completely to him, and rely on his own faithfulness to us in return. Right standing is thus placed in its proper context as the means by which he can declare us fit subjects of his kingdom—the consummation of which is our salvation (e.g., 1 Peter 1:5, 9, 13).
Put in Old Testament terms, it’s a question of fidelity versus idolatry. Repentance is not merely a turning from sin, but a turning to Jesus. It is not a mere repudiation of sin, but a complete realignment of our reliance and our loyalty. Because we commit ourselves to Jesus as his subjects, yielding ourselves to him, and because we know that he has been given all power and authority, and because we know he has died for sin already, and because we know that his representation of us is not merely regal, but familial through rebirth and adoption into his family—because of all these things, our confidence for salvation is a confidence primarily in his right to vindicate us when he exercises his judgment as king. We know it is his atoning work that makes his declaration of our right standing true—but we would know that his declaration was true even if we didn’t know how, as all God’s people in the Old Testament did!
The moralistic gospel, by contrast, is not a demand to bow the knee to the one who can vindicate us as judge; it is an offer to believe in the one who died for us as sacrifice. Even in strong presentations that emphasize Jesus’ lordship, we are still typically asked to place our confidence in the atonement. This creates an extremely awkward kink in what should be a straight line between Genesis 3 and Matthew 28: if you ask an evangelical teacher how Old Testament believers were saved, they will certainly affirm that it was by faith—but by faith in what? Well, they will say, by faith in God’s promise of a coming redeemer. But that is manifestly untrue. To take just the starkest example, Naaman, a Syrian idolater of exceedingly dubious theological clarity, was right before God without knowing a jot nor a tittle about the promised Anointed. The only thing he did right was this:
…from now on your servant will not offer burnt offerings, nor sacrifice to any god, but Yahweh. 2 Kings 5:17
He makes this declaration as he is asking for soil to worship on—thinking that Yahweh is confined to the land of Israel like any other god—and in the midst of admitting that he will continue to serve in the temple of a foreign god, so please could Elisha check with Yahweh that this is OK, because he needs to know that Naaman doesn’t really mean it! Yet Jesus compares Naaman’s faith to the faithlessness of Capernaum (Luke 4:27).
Naaman goes in peace with Yahweh (2 Kings 5:19) not because of his faith in a coming savior—for he has learned of no such savior, nor professed any such faith. The only thing he has done is give a pledge of allegiance to Yahweh. His faith is not primarily a placing of belief in a promise, but rather a placing of loyalty and confidence in Yahweh himself as the cosmic king (v. 15). That is the demand of the cosmological gospel in the Old Testament—it is the first commandment!—and it is exactly the same demand made in the New Testament. What does the thief on the cross say? “Remember me when you have finished making atonement?” No. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He is expressing fealty to the man he has recognized as the cosmic king.
In short, by making the gospel moralistic, we have robbed it of its power over the loyalties of all people everywhere (Acts 17:30), by focusing on what it can do for us—rather than on the response demanded of us as subjects of Jesus, the king of the world.
In the Owenic tradition of limited atonement the situation is even worse, because treating the atonement as the grounds of the gospel offer creates a vicious paradox where any confidence becomes completely impossible, and the gospel disappears entirely. [ D. Bnonn Tennant, On the atonement, part 2: the grounds for the universal gospel call (December 2008/July 2016).]
The moralistic gospel achieves less
What Jesus is doing right now is creating a new nation out of all the old ones, to carry out his Great Commission (1 Peter 2:9)—and this happens geometrically until there is nothing left for us to do (Revelation 11:15).
The telos of the gospel is to fully establish God’s kingdom on earth to the exclusion of all others, imposing divine dominion onto the world through a perfect human ruler—Jesus—via his people’s representation. God’s kingdom ultimately replaces the world, the fallen human dominion, by transforming it—and this is inherently earth-bound. The Great Commission is at the heart of this:
When we pray, “Your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), this is not a pious nod to the eschaton. We aren’t asking for the inevitable—that God someday fulfill his long-term promise, as if he could fail in that regard. We are asking for God’s intervention in the present. We are asking him to help us fulfill the Great Commission and establish his kingdom on earth.
Understood in the context of kingdom theology, this is a prayer for God’s people to go out and overcome Satan and his angels, tear down their bases of power, and set up Jesus’ rule there instead. It is a prayer for God to go out in our presence and fight with us by transforming Satan’s territory into his own—that is, the territory of human hearts (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:14ff). It is, simply stated, a prayer to conquer.
God is certainly powerful to achieve this, but he will achieve it through the cosmological gospel he has given us: the challenge for all people everywhere to serve Jesus. He will not achieve it through the offer for Jesus to serve all people everywhere. It is not that Jesus did not come to serve (Matthew 20:28); rather, it is that even though for a short while he did make himself our servant, nonetheless he is now exalted as our king. We are his slaves (e.g., Titus 1:1). Thus, if we wish to achieve what the gospel promises, we must actually preach that gospel, as the apostles did.
The cosmological gospel preaches that Jesus is king over the world—including the western world. It is the power of God for salvation, because it is the power of God for the obedience of faith among the nations. The moralistic gospel preaches personal moral restoration, which—if God is gracious—will achieve that end…but only that end. And as I will go on to argue, it is no longer even achieving that.