The Grammar of the Gospel: Implications & Conclusions

Last week I began drawing to a close some thoughts I’ve been developing over the last two months.  Today I’ll conclude this discussion, though related themes likely will continue to ride just beneath the surface of much of what I write on this blog.  Just to make things explicit, however, some conclusions and implications in thinking along with the grammar of the gospel.

First, because the gospel is the announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God, talk about any part of that multi-faceted redemptive and world-altering reality is “the gospel.”  All of these, then, are proclamations of the gospel: forgiveness in Christ for the guilty; a warm welcome among the body of Christ for the lonely and alienated; God’s defeat of Sin and Death in Christ; a satisfying meal among God’s people for the hungry; liberation from bondage through God’s Spirit and God’s people; reconciliation in Christ for formerly alienated groups.  These concrete realities, and so many others, are instantiations of God’s Kingdom as it invades and begins to transform an enslaved cosmos. 

Talking about any of them is talking about the gospel.

Second, the “call” of the gospel is the call to turn from sin, selfishness, and idolatry, and to take on Kingdom practices that enact, embody, activate, and participate in that reality.  The call of the gospel, then, is exhorting all people to receive forgiveness in Christ, to forgive others in Christ, to serve the poor in Christ, to reconcile with former enemies in Christ, to stop oppressing and manipulating others in Christ, to receive others as gifts in Christ, to celebrate redemption in Christ, to give thanks to God in Christ.  Concrete practices such as these are embodiments of Kingdom participation that draw upon and radiate God’s presence and power by God’s Spirit. 

To do any of them is to respond to the gospel.

As I said previously, the gospel speaks with a variety of voices depending on the situation.  To those oppressing others, the gospel will speak a word of rebuke and a call to inhabit the life-giving Kingdom of God along with others.  To those trapped in despair, the gospel sounds a note of sweet grace, relief, and comfort.  Christian people must inhabit and explore the richness of the gospel to learn how it overwhelms and transforms any and all situations for the glory of God and the good of the world.

Third, to respond to the gospel is to be compelled by this Kingdom reality and to begin enacting Kingdom behaviors among God’s people in Christ.

Fourth, evangelicals have typically prioritized an initial reception of the gospel through a saving transaction that involves nothing more than internal belief.  Only subsequent to that does human action come into view.  The New Testament grammar, however, is not one of subsequence, whereby an initiating transaction is isolated from the ongoing life of discipleship and scrubbed clean of any human action. 

Scripture takes a different tack to preserve God’s initiative and the purity of grace.  It reminds God’s people that God underwrites, enables, and empowers any and all human responses to God.  The connection between human response and God’s enabling must remain a mystery, however, and not be turned into a formula whereby human action and divine action are viewed as competing.

Fifth, I stated previously that transforming the gospel grammar into one of subsequence has been disastrous.  Many Protestants and evangelicals have made this move in the wake of the Reformation in order to protect the purity of grace in salvation.  This move distinguishes the initial human response to the gospel from the ongoing life of discipleship.  One responds to the gospel passively in the justification transaction, while the life of sanctification is one of active discipleship.  “Faith,” in this grammar, becomes internal belief and no longer fidelity and loyalty to Jesus.

Because of this historic emphasis among evangelicals, discipleship to Jesus is seen as a secondary option.  A person can be a Christian but not be a follower of Jesus in any recognizable sense.  Calls to obedience are seen as legalistic impositions.  This is the sort of reality Scot McKnight is confronting in his book The King Jesus Gospel.  This is a major contributing factor to the problem in the West of nominal Christianity.

Sixth, the difference in these two gospel grammars lies at the heart of a growing rift in evangelicalism.  Some evangelicals have been awakening to the gospel’s call to redemptive action in the world.  Groups like Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action have been saying this for years, of course, and others have been catching this activist gospel vision.

This growing movement toward redemptive action, however, has met with resistance from neo-Calvinists and evangelicals associated with the Gospel Coalition.  They see this emphasis on “social justice” as a confusion of the simplicity of the gospel, tangential to the gospel, or perhaps an implication of the gospel.  While Christians ought to be interested in doing good in the world, such efforts are not essential to the gospel.  The gospel has only to do with the reconciling transaction of sinners to God.

Here again, however, is the grammar of subsequence.  This is an inappropriate narrowing of the gospel, thinning it out, dividing into essential and tangential what Scripture depicts as a singular robust reality.

Sadly, this move drains the gospel of its world-transforming and hope-generating power, turning it into something less than good news for the world.

Those who make this move see themselves as being faithful to a Reformed gospel grammar.  As McKnight argues, however, they impose a misreading of Paul onto the Gospels, muting the witness of the four Evangelists to the gospel proclaimed by Jesus.

They neglect the fact that Jesus and his disciples proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom, announcing the reign of God and inviting any and all to participate in its life-giving and liberating practices.  Further, they overlook that the one thing Paul and the Jerusalem leaders agreed upon was the necessity of serving the poor, “the very thing [Paul] was eager to do all along” (Gal. 2:10).

We could go on to talk about how post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, Western intellectual categories distort a gospel shaped within an ancient near eastern frame of thought, along with much more.  But for now, we’ll leave it at that.

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10 responses to “The Grammar of the Gospel: Implications & Conclusions

  • Sean LeRoy (@seantleroy)

    Interesting post…I was reading thru Galatians last night and once again struck by Paul’s statement to “include” (probably a poor choice of words on my part) in his (the) gospel ministry to the poor. In fact, he says he was eager to do so; it wasn’t simply and add-on, or an “application”. Wow…I’ve got a lot of work to do in how I think on and act upon the gospel!

    • timgombis

      What’s interesting about Galatians is that Paul contrasts the false gospel they are considering with something other than merely believing. Rather, he contrasts the distinction between circumcision and uncircumcision with “faith working through love” in 5:6 and with “new creation” in 6:15. These two are synonymous, then. A life of love that embodies faith in Christ that is lived out among God’s radically new people–the new creation people of God. In v. 16, Paul calls this the new rule of faith. His gospel, then, entails a robust reality that has invaded an enslaved cosmos and created a new people, zealous for good works (to borrow the language of Titus), for loving one another, and for serving everyone and anyone, especially the household of faith.

      • jonathan mcgill

        It is interesting that in 1 Cor. 7.19 Paul uses this same phrase (“neither circumcision nor uncircumcision”) followed by “keeping the commandments of God.” So then, not only does “Faith working through love” coincide with “being a new creation” but also with what it means to truly “keep the commandments of God.” Mix that with Romans 2 and 8 (or rather Romans 1-8) and this idea of subsequence starts to appear less and less Pauline.

        This has been a great series of posts, thanks for your thoughts.

      • timgombis

        Thanks, Jon! So, Paul uses these phrases synonymously — obedience, faith, participating in the new creation, etc.

  • Dan Jr.

    Well said. Addressing some of the unintended consequences of the Reformation is touchy business. There is a real fear associated with reframing the gospel to include more than the “transaction of sinners to God.” I’ve found in leading people to have a world/neighborhood-transforming gospel I must deal with the consumer-leaning reduced gospel of “just being a sinner saved by grace.”

    It still surprises me how many life-time church folk don’t really think Jesus taught the gospel. At our church we are walking people slowly through the book of Mark using a historical/narrative hermeneutic and it is seriously reintroducing people to Jesus and his holistic/multifaceted pronouncements of the Kingdom of God. We’ve had many churched types say “I never knew Jesus talked about that” We’ve also had a many curious seekers say “I think I really like God.” Fun.

    • timgombis

      Seriously, for evangelicals (the people of the book), the Bible is largely unexplored territory. That’s sad, but it’s also promising — it means that there’s so much good stuff for us to explore!

  • bobmacdonald

    Nice word subsequence – you reinforce my own realization that God is not subject to the Church in any parochial sense. I am struck by psalm 4:
    My children, each of you,
    how long will you humiliate my glory?
    your loving on empty?
    your seeking a lie?
    Selah
    Right when we need the consolation of being delivered from trouble, we get a little reminder that we are not alone in our struggle and we have work to do in ourselves and for others. These words (verse 3 in the Hebrew) do not take part in the recurrence structure of the psalm. They remind me of psalm 82 also – how long will we continue to give wrong judgement?

  • S Wu

    An apt conclusion to the series, Tim. It has been really great. Thank you.

  • joey

    Hebrews 11 describes peoples faith by telling us about what they DID.

  • Flotsam and Jetsam (9/28) « scientia et sapientia

    […] Tim Gombis concludes his fabulous series on the Gospel with The Grammar of the Gospel: Implications & Conclusions. […]

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