My posts since early August have been working toward what I’m calling the grammar of the gospel. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, it rides just under the surface of debates in Pauline studies over the last three decades, and has much to do with Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel. I’ll draw out what I mean by that today and then perhaps in a few subsequent posts elucidate some ways that grammar has gone wrong.
In the New Testament, “the gospel” is the announcement of the arrival of the long-promised Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus and among his followers. The story of Israel and the nation’s mission to be God’s agent of redemption for the nations is being completed and extended in Jesus and his people by the power of the Spirit. This is a very large and multi-faceted reality.
The “call” of the gospel is the invitation to everyone to join the community of Jesus-followers. God’s radically new and reality-transforming reign of redemption has invaded God’s broken creation with the sending of Jesus into the world. This is the announcement of the gospel, and everyone is called to receive it, to join it, to enter into it through renewed practices.
Everyone is called to turn from idolatries, selfishness, oppression of others, hatred of enemies, lack of care for the poor and needy, lust after riches and pleasures, and all other behaviors that embody disobedience to the God of Israel. All are called to turn to Jesus to begin cultivating behaviors that embody obedience to the God of Israel who is revealed in Jesus.
Narrowing in on our point, repentance and faith are embodied in actions of obedience to Jesus. Entrance into the Kingdom of God is through embodied or performed obedience to Jesus. We could also say it this way: Reception of salvation looks like something. Receiving salvation is an embodied act, performed through obedience to the Lord Jesus.
This is why John and Jesus can say that salvation is contingent upon repentance (Luke 13:3), and why John and Jesus’ disciples can preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38).
Obedience is embodied in a number of ways throughout the Gospels. It might look like calling upon Jesus for healing, pleading with Jesus to help one’s unbelief (Mark 9:24), obeying Jesus’ demand to sell one’s possessions (Luke 18:22), responding to Jesus’ instruction to throw away credentials and start over (John 3:3-8), or obeying John’s call to stop oppressing others (Luke 3:12-14). Belief is embodied through reaching out and touching Jesus’ garment (Matt. 9:20-22), and sending a message to Jesus to merely speak a word of healing from afar (Luke 7:6-9).
By “the grammar of the gospel,” I’m referring to the logic by which we configure the human response to the gospel call. Many Protestant evangelicals are anxious to preserve the purity of grace and the priority of God in salvation. While this is a noble goal, many have attempted to meet it by changing the gospel’s grammar to one of subsequence.
According to this grammar, the transaction of salvation is isolated and walled off from any contact with human action. Faith is seen as passive reception of salvation without any connection to human action. Only subsequent to that reception does human action come into view.
This move has been disastrous for theology and for the life of the church. This is not the grammar one finds in Scripture, which protects the purity of grace and priority of God in salvation by other means.