The Grammar of the Gospel

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.

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7 responses to “The Grammar of the Gospel

  • S Wu

    Thank you so much for this, Tim.

    I have been thinking about more or less the same thing regarding the gospel. It is about Yahweh’s gracious gathering of a multi-ethnic community who give their allegiance to Jesus the Messiah, who has come according to the covenantal faithfulness of Yahweh revealed in Israel’s Scripture. It is a community that seeks to be faithful to him (not so much as something subsequent to an intellectual decision but an integral part of their love and loyalty as Christ’s followers).

    My journey of arriving at this view might be somewhat different from others. My personal experience and my current work are about justice for the poor and oppressed (both in the West and globally). The fact that the gospel means “good news” in the Greek has caught my eyes. Given the fact that a high proportion of the Jesus-followers in the earliest house churches were socially-economically disadvantaged and/or religiously-racially oppressed, the “good news” would have been very (existentially) relevant.

    The gathering of a community of Christ-followers who seek to embody Jesus self-giving way of life would have been amazingly liberating. In a culture obsessed with honour and shame, and in a society that is highly hierarchical across social, economic and racial lines, a Jew-Gentile community (of the Messiah!) that seeks to love and honour one another through the Spirit’s empowerment is amazingly appealing and comforting.

    This is my round-about way of saying that (in your words) “behaviors that embody obedience to the God of Israel who is revealed in Jesus” are absolutely important when it comes to the gospel. The first-century Christians would have understood that this is an inseparable and integral part of the “good news”.

    • timgombis

      Well-said, S. When the command of the gospel is, “come and join a community of life that will welcome you and bring about your flourishing,” the commands of God seem truly “the way of life.” I think one of the reasons there’s a struggle with this is because we see the way of death, destruction, and selfishness as truly the way of promise. It’s our skewed vision that gets us in trouble. We see the way of life as the harder way, rather than seeing Jesus’ yoke as the one that’s easier to bear.

  • Michael

    Faith without action carries no witness. If we have nothing to show, then what’s the point.

  • Dan Jr.

    i understand the passion of preserving God’s initiative in salvation but in Mark 2:1-12 God in Jesus responds to the initiating visible faith of a paralytic and his community of friends. Presumably we are understand that the physical faith act of going through a roof to get to Jesus moves Him deeply. In this sequence God responds to the pursuit these fellas make towards him. The response is grace and forgiveness.

    • timgombis

      You’re right, Dan. To my mind, we need to insist on God’s initiative in salvation, but on a broader theological level. Keeping this broader concern where it belongs helps us to read texts honestly and see what is indeed going on. The Scriptures protect God’s initiative in ways that don’t violate the text. They often insist to believers that they remember that God is the one who has saved us, and not ourselves (e.g., Ps. 100).

      • S Wu

        Yes, yes! Indeed we need to insist on God’s initiative in salvation. Again this is thoroughly scriptural notion. It undergirds the theology in the entire Bible. But the Bible also insists on obedience and faith-faithfulness-fidelity.

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