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.