The Expansive Scope of the Gospel... continued from Part 5a
What then is the Scriptural vision of the gospel? That in Jesus Christ, God is taking his creation—which has, because of sin, fallen into ruin—and redemptively restoring it in every part, until the time of consummation, in which all things will at last be made new. It is this Christ-centered, comprehensive, and restorational gospel that should animate the life and witness of the Christian church.
And yet it remains the case that in the contemporary church, the expansive scope of the Scriptural gospel has been sadly reduced. On the one hand, one encounters what may be referred to as the merely personal gospel. In this widely embraced understanding of the Christian gospel, God’s redeeming work is understood to be primarily—if not exclusively—about human restoration to God through the sin-atoning work of Jesus. Jesus came into a sinful world to die for our sins, and through this death, to secure our forgiveness, deliver us from the just judgment of God, and to bring us back into that state for which we were made: fellowship with God. The obvious good of this perspective is that it faithfully represents part of what Jesus came to do. He did come into the world to die for our sins, to secure our forgiveness, to deliver us from condemnation, and to reconcile us to God. This is a foundational, unequivocal, and enduring teaching of the Christian Scriptures and is the joyful confession of the Christian church. And it is wonderfully evident that through the proclamation of this message, countless men, women, and children, have been restored to God.
And yet the weakness of this perspective is that it tends to ignore other things that Jesus came to do, which are also part of the gospel. Restoration of our own selves, restoration of our communities, restoration of the material world—these are seen as (at best) secondary “entailments” of the gospel, rather than the gospel itself or (at worst) as distractions from the pure gospel of Jesus. But restoration of our humanity, our relationships, and our world are not secondary to Jesus’ purposes, and they are certainly not distractions from them. They are an intrinsic part of the good news of Jesus’ redemptive work in the world. And the faithful gospel is the one that will proclaim them as such.
On the other hand, we find the merely social gospel. In this perspective, God’s redeeming work in Jesus is understood primarily in terms of personal and social renewal. Jesus came into a sin-sick world so that He—through His Easter resurrection and Pentecostal presence—might restore broken lives, lift up the poor, liberate the oppressed, and establish God’s justice over the whole of the earth. The strength of this perspective—and the reason it is so deeply motivating as a force for good in the world—is that it faithfully articulates part of what Jesus came to do in this world. He did come to heal the sin-sick world. He did come so that the kingdom of God—with its healing, deliverance, liberation, and justice (Lk. 4)—might come on earth, just as it is in heaven (Matt. 6). And it is manifestly the case that the proclamation and embodiment of this part of Jesus’ work has brought untold good to God’s people and their neighbors throughout the world.
The very serious weakness of this perspective is that it tends to ignore the personal reality of sin and therefore the need for the personal reconciliation with God found only in Jesus (2 Cor. 5). These things cannot be ignored, because the Christian gospel teaches us that before we move to address the sins of the world, we must take responsibility for our own sins. And before we participate in God’s reconciliation of all things, we must first—through Christ—be reconciled to God ourselves.
Because of these profound weaknesses, the tendency to both a merely personal and a merely social gospel must be strongly resisted in our time. Doing so will require us to self-consciously embrace the expansive scope of the gospel of Jesus; a gospel that contains within it the glorious promise that, in Jesus, God is reconciling all things. For if the church is to be a presence that faithfully bears witness to the gospel, we must proclaim it, not just in part but in whole.