(this is the final post of a series. click here for a series review.)
our current, traditional, ‘orthodox’ understanding of the overarching narrative of the scriptures (in most evangelical churches) is the gospel, and this ‘gospel’ is summed up in most circles by the simple ‘romans road’ tool used in evangelism (often called the ‘romans road to salvation’):
all have sinned [romans 3:23]; the wages of sin is death [romans 6:23a]; but the free gift of God is eternal life [romans 6:23b]; christ died for us [romans 5:8]; and all who call on the name of the lord jesus christ will be saved [romans 10:9,10,13]. (some even add a few more verses about being at peace with God and having no condemnation now that we’re found in christ [romans 5:1; 8:1; 8:38-39])
we call this the gospel. the good news. the point.
one prominent evangelical leader has said, “the only reason Jesus came was to save people from Hell… Jesus had no social agenda… [He didn’t come to eliminate poverty or slavery or to] fix something in somebody’s life for the little moment they live on this earth.” in other words, God was going to do away with the whole lot of us and send us away to hell as punishment for our sin in fiery eternal conscious torment, but then jesus came and saved us. that’s why he came. and that’s why people need to become christians, so they can be saved from hell, too. instead, we can all go to heaven. and that’s the main story of the bible.
i fundamentally, wholeheartedly (and yes, even biblically) disagree.
i would argue that the gospel — the good news — has implications that are far more reaching and redemptive than simply the afterlife. it is much more than merely ‘the romans road to salvation.’ in the words of nt wright, ‘heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.’
by turning knowing jesus just into the ‘right’ to get into heaven, we have completely missed the point. we have cheapened everything about the incarnation, his life, death, burial and resurrection. we have diluted his teachings into a single moment in eternity that leaves no bearing on our responsibility as followers of christ other than to convert as many people as possible to our way of thinking.
let me be clear. i believe in jesus. i love him, follow him, and believe about him everything the new testament teaches about him (though not all that has been taught about him). i believe with all that i am that he is the very word of God (note: he is, not the bible); the word made flesh; the visible image of an invisible God; the son of God; the messiah; the friend of sinners and the savior of the world. i believe that he is the way, the truth, and the life; the anointed, liberating king (the meaning behind the term ‘messiah’) for all people. it’s what i think, speak, teach, and write about; what i seek to live out in my daily life.
the more i study his life; the more i learn about jesus and the more deeply i come to know him; i see that his legacy — our faith — is less about converting others to our way of thinking about him in order to save their eternal souls, and much more about what he said was important: loving God, and loving people. we’ve turned his life into a ticket allowing access to a cosmic amusement park called heaven; and not only do i find this terribly offensive, i find it terribly unbiblical.
if we seek to understand the scriptures for the greater purpose of understanding who God in christ is, and who we, as his followers, are called to be, there is one particular passage that sums up what, in my opinion, is the heart of the gospel:
now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed to us the word of reconciliation. therefore, we are ambassadors for christ, as though God were making an appeal through us: we beg you on behalf of christ, be reconciled to God. he made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
could it be that the way God saves is through jesus? that as we believe in, trust, and follow him (in his message of reconciliation which has been entrusted to us, placing the primary priority on loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves), that salvation comes not to just the few, but to many? could it be that the universal fulfillment of the abrahamic covenant (that all nations will be blessed through the blessed nation) is realized in our ability to be agents of reconciliation on behalf of christ? could it be that we —you and i — have a part to play in the redemption of God’s creation?
i believe this is the gospel. i believe that this is the good news of jesus. i believe that he died for the sins of the world, and that as the scriptures say, God no longer counts the trespasses of those for whom christ died against them. i believe that john the baptizer was correct when he called jesus the Lamb of God, and equally correct when he announced that when jesus came, he came to take away the sins of the world. i believe that when jesus hung on the cross of calvary and prayed for the roman guards, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” that his prayer was efficacious, both heard and answered by God the Father. i believe that the way God deals with his creation is in terms of restoration and redemption, that he seeks to set things right in the order and way in which they were originally created to be. i believe that when peter wrote that God is not wishing that any should perish but that he desires for all to come to repentance, that God is not only willing, but able to succeed in that plan of reconciliation of his entire creation to himself. i believe that we did not choose him, but he chose us.
i believe that the jesus of the gospels is the same jesus that will usher in his kingdom in fullness, and that then, as in the gospels, he will surround himself with and redeem modern day tax collectors, drunkards, prostitutes, and sinners…whether they recognize him as their ‘messiah’ or not. i believe that there will come a day when jesus will draw all men to himself, just as he said he would.
i believe that this simple and deep message of reconciliation has been distorted over centuries of traditions that have (though perhaps well intentioned) misunderstood and misrepresented the message and person of the jesus of the gospels.
here, i would invoke the disclaimer and plea from mclaren’s a new kind of christianity:
At this point, I need to speak directly to those for whom the Bible is a constitution and can be nothing but a constitution: I am not pressuring you to change your view right now. Yes, I would be happy if you would do so, but I understand that many people simply cannot in good conscience change their view, for reasons ranging from intellectual conviction and formation, to psychological integrity, to job security, to social loyalty to a constitutional congregation or denomination. My plea to you is that you be careful in the way you use the Bible as a constitution… In addition, I hope you will understand that, just as you cannot in good conscience cease to see the Bible as a constitution, many of us can no longer continue to do so in good conscience; that’s why we are on a quest to find other ways to cherish, understand, and follow the Bible.
even as i release this post, a legion of conservative Neo-Reformed christians are writing, tweeting, preaching and blogging AGAINST other christ followers, denouncing them as heretics and declaring them ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing,’ among other less-than-friendly titles. i may be included in their slanderous attacks as one who is ‘watering down’ the good news of jesus and preaching a ‘false gospel.’
yet i would suggest that, on the contrary, we are seeking to bring life giving water to a gospel that has been wandering aimlessly in the desert for far more than forty years. the ‘ticket into the kingdom’ mentality is tired, old, and dried up. i would suggest that particular gospel is even unbiblical, empty, and dead.
‘the message of easter is not that christ has been raised, so we are going to heaven. it is that christ is raised, and God has ushered in a new world, and now we have a job to do.’
we do have a job to do. our job is to be ambassadors of reconciliation.