Old words do not reach across the new gulfs,
and it is only in vision and oracle that we can chart the unknown
and new-name the creatures.
Keefe, Perry. “Theopoetics: Process and Perspective.”
The future is already here; it just isn’t evenly distributed.
Some time ago I ran across an ancient document written in 2004, and the title is “The Strategy We Pursue.” It was actually a paper written for the Billy Graham Center Evangelism Roundtable: “ISSUES OF TRUTH AND POWER: THE GOSPEL IN A POST-CHRISTIAN CULTURE.”
The first point the author makes was prophetic in 2004, and still relevant. He argues that our strategy should include five dimensions, and point number one is theological. But it is probably the most difficult argument, and the most difficult change, to undertake. What follows is an abbreviation of the first four pages of the paper. This is point ONE.
1. Admit we may not actually understand the good news, and seek to rediscover it. (Or: Reboot our theology in a new understanding of the gospel of Jesus.)
The author argues that Christianity exists in three main forms. Its two western forms (Roman Catholic and Protestant) understand the gospel to be primarily information on how to get one’s soul into heaven after death. Although they differ on what constitutes the information, they generally agree on the goal.
If Christianity is not primarily information about how one gets his or her personal soul into heaven after death, then – what is it? A tiny number of Christian leaders (including Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Bill Hull, Len Sweet, Todd Hunter, and others) are making a counter-proposal: perhaps the gospel has something to do with the Kingdom of God, and perhaps the Kingdom of God is not equal to going to heaven after death, but rather involves God’s will being done on earth, in history, before death, in the land of the living.
Along similar lines, a few additional bona fide evangelicals (such as Mark Baker, Joel Green, and N. T. Wright) are suggesting that the gospel is not appropriately understood as atonement-centered. Rather, atonement theology may be a kind of prelude to the gospel, groundwork that prepares the way for the gospel of the Kingdom of God, or perhaps it is but one facet of a glimmering diamond which is centered not in a proposition — but a Person.
Evangelicals have historically considered the battle line to be over justification by works versus justification by faith, but these authors suggest that the new battle line is rather over salvation beyond history from hell by grace, versus salvation within history from sin by grace – with sin including both personal and social dimensions.
What the rising culture needs is nothing less than a radical new vision of what life can be (personal life, family life, community life, social life, global life in all its dimensions – cultural, business, political, economic, social, recreational, etc.). This “vision of what life can be,” along with a way of life that helps bring that vision into reality, is at least a significant dimension of what I believe Jesus meant by the phrase “kingdom of God.” It is a vision in the truest sense of the word, a gift of seeing that comes from God.
Nobody expresses this need for vision better than Methodist farmer/essayist/poet/novelist Wendell Berry, in his article “In Distrust of Movements”. He writes that,
“The outward harmony that we desire between our economy and the world depends finally upon an inward harmony between our own hearts and the originating spirit that is the life of all creatures, a spirit as near us as our flesh and yet forever beyond the measures of this obsessively measuring age. We can grow good wheat and make good bread only if we understand that we do not live by bread alone.”
What Berry is calling for is gospel, THE gospel, not just information on how one goes to heaven after death, by whatever means (admitting that “by grace through faith” in Jesus is far better than by works, by luck, or by any other way) … but rather a gospel that is a vision of what life can be in all its dimensions (not just individual dimensions): the kingdom of God.
This understanding of the gospel is inherently relational (kingdom is a relational word – implying relationship with the king, with fellow citizens, with the territory, with the laws of the king and standards of justice and mercy, etc.) and missional (meaning it propels us into mission, for the kingdom is also a revolution against the status quo dominated by “principalities and powers”) and monastic (meaning it calls us to shared spiritual practices in community – such as prayer and reconciliation – racial, religious, economic, etc.). It can be diagrammed in contrast to our standard gospel understanding, which focuses on “me and my soul,” and then sometimes attempts to transfer concern from me to the church, and then occasionally attempts further extension of concern for the world.
An alternative understanding of the gospel re-proportions these elements, starting with God’s concern for the world, in which God creates a community called the church, comprised of persons who stop (or repent of) being “part of the problem” and choose instead to join God as “part of the solution” – thus simultaneously entering a mission and a community in which one is accepted by grace, through faith in Jesus.
In the first set of images you see two lines, each with a movement from left to right and a fulcrum under the line. I am attempting to picture the movement of God’s work in history from promise to fulfillment (partial or “realized eschatology”) and finally to God’s good future. When self is at the center of God’s work in history, a serious distortion, we focus on the eternal now, the good life now where we can have it all. Jesus becomes a commodity we consume for our own benefit, and God’s future — and concerns for justice under His kingdom rule — drops off. It’s the only way to “balance” a theology with self at the center where we want it all now and evaluate everything by what it does for me. “My” salvation, my life, my small world (and shrunken god and gospel).
Paradoxically, this also takes us to “the gospel of sin management” (Willard – The Divine Conspiracy). When we narrow the Gospel to something custom built for my self, our main worry is personal insurance. That focuses us inwardly on sin – a distortion of the pietism that once had God’s redemption of all things (all things summed up in Christ Eph. 1) in view.
On line two, top image, the kingdom of God and the new creation is at the center. Now we see the movement from promise to fulfillment and into God’s good future: a new heaven and a new earth, the promise of the kingdom arriving in fullness, and not just somewhere “out there” but as we pray, “May your kingdom come on earth…” Humankind does not become a mere afterthought in this way of viewing God’s redemptive purpose, but rather is the vehicle of that purpose, and reconciled and reconciling communities are a contrast society, a sign and a foretaste of God’s reign. The church is the center, but not the circumference, of that larger plan, and salvation is a beginning, not the end. When we come to know ourselves as God’s children we haven’t so much arrived as stepped onto a new path (though yes, in a real sense “all things have become new”) that involves continuing conversion.
For those who prefer circles, another approach is to consider two lenses (lower half image). This allows for a developmental view of discipleship. In the first lens, self and sin are our major concern. It’s a narrow lens and filters out much of what we know about God and His kingdom. The second and larger lens is the work of God in history, and the dawn of God’s new age in Christ, the first fruits of the new creation. It seems to me that as we enter this story we find ourselves in the first lens, and as we learn and grow and acknowledge Jesus as both Savior and Lord, the lens gradually expands. Hopefully, we take ourselves out of the center at some point and place God’s Kingdom purpose and the new creation at the center.
As this old writer put it,
“Any understanding of the gospel that is not radically re-proportioned along these lines will not be seen or heard as good news by people in our postmodern world, nor should it be. This ‘alternative’ understanding of the gospel (post-colonial, post-Enlightenment, etc.) is more faithful to Scripture, more faithful to the life, teaching, and example of Jesus, and more rooted in the call of God to humanity – from Adam to Abraham to the prophets to Jesus to the apostles. While it critiques much of what passes today for “evangelical,” it also affirms the true treasures of the evangelical heritage.”
While it is possible to OPPOSE these two views of the Gospel, splitting spiritual and physical concerns, what we need instead is an integrative perspective because Jesus is Lord of all. The Gospel is good news for the whole person – social, spiritual, physical, emotional – the goal of the Gospel is God’s shalom.