Tag Archives: gospel

Gospel as Cruciform Kingdom

When Jesus was proclaiming the advent of the reign of God, he was proclaiming the good news (the gospel).

The introduction to Mark tells us that his whole story demarcates the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ—and that story culminates in Jesus’ crucifixion and report of his resurrection.

As I prepare for a week of discussions about gospel, kingdom, and cross, I keep circling back around to this:

We repeatedly end up with truncated gospels because we have not yet learned to hold together Jesus’ authoritative proclamation and inauguration of the reign of God (Mark 1-8) with Jesus’ road to Jerusalem and death on the cross as king (Mark 8-16).

Some of us struggle to place much significance in the death of Jesus, given all the powers and signs and wonders and teaching and authority and identity he put on display in his life.

Others of us struggle to place much central significance in the life of Jesus, given our understanding of the all-sufficiency of his death on our behalf.

To the one I would say that any conceptual framework of what Jesus was doing in his life that does not require Jesus to die on the cross is an inadequate and finally mistaken view of Jesus and the gospel.

And to the other I would say that any conceptual framework of what Jesus did for us on the cross that does not require Jesus to live a life of proclaiming and demonstrating the advent of the reign of God is an inadequate and finally mistaken view of Jesus and the gospel.

That’s my story for now, anyway: we need to continue working on the articulation of a cruciform kingdom.

What do you think?

Do the gospel stories as such demand that we read them as mutually-interpreting wholes, to where cross and kingdom each inform the other?

And if so, where does this leave us when we come to Paul, whose gospel-story timeline begins with the cross?

I have some thoughts on the latter. I’ll come back to that in a couple of days.

Gospel of Deeds?

The May edition of Christianity Today has an article by Duane Litfin (president emeritus of Wheaton College) on the inherently verbal nature of the gospel.

He especially has it in for the saying of the great saint, Pseudo-Francis (who will be seated next to Deutero-Paul and Trito-Isaiah in the heavenly banquet hall, no doubt!):

Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.

I have shared Litfin’s disdain for this saying. I have shared his concern that a non-verbal preaching is, simply, a category mistake. Words are necessary for giving interpretation to the actions that people see.

My own position on this has changed somewhat. This is due, in large part, to seeing the importance of the Gospels as demonstrations of the gospel.

Litfin summarizes his point:

…the notion of “preaching the gospel” with our deeds is foreign to the Bible. The biblical gospel is inherently verbal, and by definition, communicating it requires putting it into words.

I want to affirm what Litfin affirms (the necessity of words) but it’s also important to affirm what he denies.

Mark tells us of Jesus’ ministry and summarizes it thus:

Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, CEB)

Per Litfin’s point, Jesus preaches with words.

However, the subsequent chapters of Mark contain virtually no teaching of Jesus. He is engaged in a proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom’s advent by calling people, healing the sick, casting out demons, teaching with authority, forgiving sins, eating with the outcast.

The proclamation entails the advent of the Kingdom–something that is not present when only words are in play, but is only present when deeds are enacted as well.

Or, in the theology of the dictum of Pseudo-Francis: Jesus was proclaiming the gospel with his deeds.

This reading is bolstered by Jesus’ own declaration of his disciples’ identity in the Sermon on the Mount:

You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16, CEB)

How is the God of Jesus’ followers glorified? By the nations seeing their good deeds and ascribing glory to their heavenly Father.

To be sure, the world will need to know the one in whose name we are acting. There is a demand for words. But the proclamation entailed here is a proclamation of deed that is in no way secondary to the word.

In the article, Litfin employs a couple of passages for his cause that I do not think support his point.

In John 3:14-15 and John 12:32, Jesus says that his being lifted up will draw all people to himself. This is not an indication of preaching about the cross in words, it is an indication that the action itself is the good news that draws all people to Christ.

Similarly, in Gal 3:1, Paul says that the gospel was “placarded before your eyes.” There is a visual demonstration of the gospel (I would argue in Paul’s own suffering in addition to the works of the Spirit) that makes it known, not merely words.

I see Litfin’s article, and my uneasiness with it, reflecting a larger on-going shift and/or fault line in Evangelicalism. Evangelicals are learning afresh what to do with Jesus. We are learning about the importance of narratives. We are learning about the significance of living out the faith to which we are called.

In our reading of Jesus we are seeing that the feeding of 5,000 is as much a proclamation of the kingdom as the parable of the sower that tells us about abundance coming from scarcity.

In our reading of Paul we are realizing that his plea for himself as an authentic agent of the gospel is inseparably tied to himself as a suffering servant of the Suffering Servant.

The Spirit works not merely because the correct words are spoken. The Spirit works as an agent of glory inside jars of clay. The Spirit works as the agent of resurrection life in the midst of an agent who, enacting the gospel of the crucified Christ, is carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus.

Must we speak? Yes.

But is that all? No.

Is it sufficient? No.

Are our deeds the proclamation of the gospel? Yes. Without a doubt.

The Gospel We Find?

In talking about the Bible as (not) an owners manual for life, we discussed the connection between expectations of the Bible / assumptions about what the Bible is, what we look for / hope for from the Bible, and what we actually find when we turn to it.

A similar problem besets our articulations of the gospel message itself. What is the “good news” that the Bible proclaims or reflects?

Each year I teach a course on Romans through Revelation. That’s a lot of documents.

Is there one gospel message that holds it all together?

I remember listening in on ordination exams in a conservative Reformed context. There, the gospel was often thought of in terms of “justification by faith.” I remember one guy would always ask candidates, “Can you name two passages from the Old Testament which preach the gospel of justification by faith?” Not so coincidentally, every candidate named the only two passages in the OT where the language of “righteousness” and “belief” are found together.

This is merely illustrative: there are ways we can think about the gospel that limit us severely, such that we might even find ourselves saying, as some of the pastors Scot McKnight talks about in King Jesus Gospel, that Jesus didn’t preach the gospel. That’s when we know we’ve backed ourselves into a corner.

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But is that the best we can do? Or is there a larger all-encompassing word of “good news” that can pick up a larger swath of both NT and OT?

Here, I think that the quest for the center of Paul’s thought is helpful and instructive. While some might argue that Paul’s gospel is something like justification by faith or union with Christ in his death and resurrection, I’d say that both are looking at the wrong end of the stick.

These are ways of talking about our participation in the gospel, the potential impact of the good news on us, rather than the good news itself.

We get closer to the good news itself when we talk about what God has done in Christ himself, than we get when we talk about how that Christ event comes to benefit us. In other words, the accomplishment of salvation is the gospel, and the application of salvation is the ramification of the good news–or what makes it good news to me.

So how about something like this: the crucified Christ is the resurrected Lord over all things.

What does crucifixion mean? Depends on who you ask (Luke? Paul? Hebrews? 1 John? Revelation?). But it is a representative and (usually) reparative act. It is not simply a person who died, but the Messiah, the king, the representative ruler over God’s people.

What does resurrection mean? Depends on who you ask (Luke? Paul? 1 Peter? Hebrews? Revelation?). But at the heart of it is the reality that Jesus is the enthroned master over all things and therefore the one who is to be both celebrated and obeyed by all the nations of the earth.

What do you think? Too vague? Too specific? Not clearly enough “good news”? How do you articulate the gospel in such a way that it can be borne witness to by such a diverse collection of texts? Or is that even a possibility? Is “the” gospel too much to ask our Bible for?


The Failure of Individualism

Ok, so here’s the story.

Yesterday I saw this tweeted and flipped my lid: “If you want to stop human trafficking, make disciples.” It was attributed to Francis Chan at Passion 2012.

As a self-contained statement, I find this admonition to be incredibly damaging. What better way to distract people from the real human needs in the world than to spiritualize the needs of the people around us?

In the immediate context of the talk, Chan went on to speak of the people around us as possible perpetrators. And so, within these few sentences, the way we’re supposed to understand the world seems to be something like this: If everyone loves Jesus, we won’t have to deal with human trafficking and sex slavery anymore.

Such an assessment is naïve, to say the least. There are greater powers at work in the world than the power of individual human hearts that act out of accord with the will of God.

On Monday I was talking about the hot topics before us, and mentioned “the gospel” as a holistic entity as one of those hot topics. We continue to need to learn that the purposes of God are bigger than simply the rectification of persons.

I found that 90ish seconds of Chan’s talk to be dangerous for this reason. People who already assume an individualistic gospel hear an individualistic means toward overcoming a pervasive evil, and are sent on their way to ignore the problem by telling people God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives.

We hear what we already know, and I worry about how 40,000 college students and 1.5 million online viewers heard that snippet, or read it in Tweet form.

If you want to end human trafficking, work to end human trafficking. Give to International Justice Mission. Learn from Not For Sale, and support their work. Find out where human trafficking is likely at work in your area (find someone to show you the “massage parlors” with the bars on the windows and inward facing security cameras).

Disciple making in itself, keeping Christians from soliciting prostitutes, is never going to solve the problem of human trafficking.

Now, having said all that, the larger context of Chan’s talk leads me to believe and hope that he would agree with my concern, and with the trajectory of sending people to work, truly work, for the freeing of prisoners.

The talk itself was about believing the Bible and doing what it says. He tells a story about throwing a banquet for a bunch of poor people as a self-imposed exercise in obeying rather than explaining-away Jesus’ instruction to do so.

He exhorts the audience to believe that the power we see at work in Jesus is still at work today–to heal, and to free the captive!

The very beginning of the talk was Chan celebrating a talk that had come before his, one in which someone was talking about kids trafficked for sex, and he was passionately responding, stirring the crowd up again with the desire to respond and act to free those kids from slavery.

So what happened in that 90 second piece that got me riled up?

One more piece of context: the entire talk was shaped as a call to passionate, faithful, believing discipleship propelled by an individual’s own reading of the Bible without anyone telling us what it says other than what we can see for ourselves.

Individually faithful discipleship. Driven by individual Bible reading. We could talk all day about his hermeneutics and the like, but here’s what I think happened: the “stand against sex trafficking” piece was not part of the planned talk, but was something Chan was passionate about and worked into his talk at several points because of the previous, powerful speaker.

And, as several folks have alerted me to, Chan does tons, including giving millions of dollars, to help rid the world of this scourge.

But, the message of “be and make faithful individuals” is actually a poor container for holding the social justice message that Chan also finds to be biblical. In this brief, 2ish minute riff, the theme of his talk itself (be and make faithful disciples) was brought into conversation with an issue that didn’t fit the topic (end human trafficking), with unfortunate results.

The 90 seconds troubles me, because it captures one possible way of construing the relationship between personal discipleship and the world “out there” that I think too many Christians buy into. I fear that hearing those words from Chan has the power to perpetuate not merely wrong-headed engagement with human trafficking, but a divinely approved withdrawal from the issue. I don’t think it was the best of what Chan had to say that night about human trafficking.

Much better was his strong affirmation at the end: this Jesus we serve really does have the power to free prisoners–so let’s go do it.

What’s On Your Plate?

Slowing the blogging pace and stepping back for a week or two over the holidays, I started to think about what streams of conversation are flowing with particular force these days.

Over the past couple of years there have been emergent or missional conversations that always provided ready fodder for conversation. But those streams have largely dried up as ever-present conversation pieces.

Here are a couple of things that strike me as continuing points of interest as I scan the blogosphere. But I’d also love to hear from you: what are you thinking about and finding yourself in vigorous conversation about as you strive to work out what it looks like to faithfully follow Jesus in 2012?

  1. The Gospel. I know that sounds rather broad and… well… settled, but here’s what I mean: in the more or less evangelical circles in which I run, we are finding a good deal of traction in conversations that press us to articulate a holistic gospel that affirms the “spiritual” dynamics of a restored relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus while also affirming that the spiritual work of being at work in the world for the good of all God’s creatures is integral to the faith.

    Recent books by Scot McKnight, Tom Wright, and yours truly are all working to contribute to such a recalibration of the evangelical gospel, that has been too long denying what it should have been affirming (in many circles). The gospel is good news for the whole world.

  2. Human origins after evolution. As denial of evolution becomes a rallying cry for both religiously and politically conservative movements, it moves certain brands of Christianity into more of a backwater. Too many Christians now have too much education for this non-viable position to continue to hold sway among thoughtful evangelicals.

    But, this means that we are confronted with a monumental task. And here is where the conservatives are right: to affirm evolution entails a reconfiguring of the narrative of humanity in significant ways. What can Christians say about the significance of humanity’s place in the cosmos once the story of evolution displaces the story of one-off creation? What can be retained? What must be replaced? Pete Enns’ book, and the interest it is generating even prior to publication, is one piece of bookish evidence about the continuing significance of this issue.

  3. Gender in the church. Here’s one for which I have no direct evidence in terms of tell-tale books. (I apologize.) But, with the continuing surge of the neo-Reformed movement, there has been a concomitant surge theological conviction about male dominance of the church.

What do you think? Are these issues the ones that are active points of conversation in your world? Are there others? I started to wonder if “what the Bible is” might not be another significant point where evangelicals are entering a new place (cf. Christian Smith’s, The Bible Made Impossible), and if folks find themselves increasingly in conversations about sex and sexuality?


Diagnosing and Prescribing

I’ve thought a lot about diagnosing and prescribing this week. Two trips to the family doc to have a kid’s swollen face examined, and one to get a referral to take care of some lower back pain for me, and I’ve had more than my fair share, thankyouverymuch.

Mostly, the doctors do a good job of listening before asserting a cure. In other realms,

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I find this to rarely be the case.

Almost inevitably, when I call someone about a computer problem, an issue with a payment on a website or the like, they start jumping to solutions without listening to what the problem is that I’m experiencing or what I’ve done to try to solve it.

One day, I’m going to start all such calls by asking the help person, “Do you know a lot about xxxxx? Yes? Oh great! Then you’re going to have to listen very carefully to what I’m telling you in order to make sure you can pull out the one thing I need to hear.”

Over the past week, I have been struck on several occasions by the, I won’t say uniquely, but typically Christian sin of prescribing a cure for diseases that do not exist. On the Twitter feed, FB page, and, yes, even in print, I have heard people make grand proclamations about what “man strives for” in contrast to what Christianity offers.

“The attempt to ‘climb to heaven’ on the rungs of reason, morality, and experience” is indicative, apparently, of the quest for “a god we can manage rather than the God who is actually there.”

What struck me about each of the problems to which the Christian was offering a solution was that none of my non-Christian friends, spiritual, religious, or otherwise, really has the disease for which the Christian prescription is offered.

The cause of our misdiagnosis, it seems to me, is twofold.

First, we don’t get out enough. We learn who we are, and that in antithesis to other people, within our own communities. We develop our theologies in conversation with a church history that is not the present. We tell ourselves not only what is “real” about God and us, but what is “real” about them. And so we are taught to prescribe a set of salutary solutions to an assumed set of problems that do not coincide to the reality we experience beyond our bubble.

Second, in the wake of the first point, we become strong reinterpreters of other people’s reality. They tell us that they are not working their way to God. (Buddhism might say, “I neither work nor attempt to arrive at your god.”) But we know that they “really” are both working and striving after God–even if they don’t know it yet.

This makes us bad listeners, bad friends, and bad ambassadors for the gospel. In fact, it shows that we don’t have a very good grip on the gospel ourselves.

When we have a good, a wide and all encompassing grasp on the gospel, we recognize that it is diverse and holistic in the solutions it brings to a troubled earth. And that means that we do not have to cram every alternative into one box, fit it under one diagnosis, in order to say that God in Christ offers a better way.

I do believe that God in Christ has offered something better. I do believe that Christ is greater.

But greater than what?

Yes, I know that chemotherapy is powerful and awesome. But I’ve got a broken leg.

I can’t assume that I know how to answer that question before I’ve listened.

Big Gospel, Transforming Grace

I know that this will come as a shock to many of my loyal readers, but there has actually been a point to talking about hope springing form resurrection, an all-encompassing gospel generated by the incarnation, and cultivating a posture of hopefulness and largess with regard to God’s reconciliation of the world in Christ.

The point is that so reframing our understanding of the gospel is crucial for Christians recognizing that our calling entails moving out beyond the walls of the church to engage and even transform the world around us. When our gospel is bigger than just forgiveness of sins, our actions in service of the gospel can entail more than simply preaching that people should repent.

It is just such an all-encompassing understanding of the redeeming work of God that would seem to stand behind the various stories that fill out Christianity Today’s focus on Portland for its “This Is Our City” project.

When Christians believe that actual physical freedom from bondage to other human beings is part of God’s purpose for humanity they are empowered to create movements to stand against anti-sex trafficking.

When Christians recognize that Christ goes before them and that the world in all its created beauty is God’s, they are empowered to pour their lives into after school art programs that transform the lives of kids in the seemingly destitute system.

Forgiveness of sins is important, but when Jesus went out proclaiming the good news of repentance for forgiveness of sins, he enacted an all-embracing kingdom message that offered healing, hope, restoration, and wholeness of all kinds.

When we live into such a wide-ranging gospel, we can actually live in this world in such a way that we catch glimpses of the advent of the reign of God. And we can even live in such a way that those outside the church are capable of seeing our good deeds and glorifying our Father in heaven.

King Jesus Gospel

Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel is the most recent in a stream of books designed to get evangelicals to recognize that the Christian faith is an inherently active affair. It is not merely a personal message of salvation to be believed in my heart, it is about a grand story that we must continue to tell, and live out, if we are to be the faithful people of God.

I have much affinity with Scot’s overall project. Like my own work in Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?, The King Jesus Gospel is concerned to articulate a gospel that both Jesus and Paul proclaimed, to articulate this gospel as deeply enmeshed in the story of Israel, and to insist that the gospel is not merely about personal salvation but about a more pervasive, cosmic transformation.

More than this, Scot is working with a similar paradigm to the one I’ve been developing here and elsewhere over the past several years: there is an inherent connection between the gospel message, what defines us as Christians, our identity, and our ethics.

The sharp end of his argument is this: the way that we have “shared the gospel” has been so much about personal salvation that it fails to carry with it an inherent call to a particular way of living. And, when the message of salvation is so truncated, it begins to close its claim to bear the label “gospel” at all: it is “soterian” (about salvation) without being entirely “evangelical” (about the gospel).

McKnight spends the first couple chapters laying out the need to move from a “salvation culture” to a “gospel culture.”

The book then turns to develop an articulation of what the gospel is. It moves from Paul’s summary statement in 1 Cor 15 through the Creeds before returning to Jesus in the Gospels and Acts.

The focus of these chapters is this: the death and resurrection of Jesus are the consummation of the story of Israel.

One the most important contributions of this, the meat of the book, is that Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated himself to be the king of the kingdom, the special agent in whom the story of Israel is coming to its consummation. Far too much credence has been given to the notion that Jesus proclaimed God rather than himself. Jesus places himself right in the middle of God’s plans for the cosmos.

Here are a few places I’d want to push back on the book and maybe generate a bit more conversation:

  • Is the Creed really a faithful summary of the Paul’s 1 Cor 15 gospel? The most important reason I say no is that it removes all of the important interpretive glosses that enable us to say that why the death and resurrection are “gospel”: “according to the scriptures” and “for our sins.” McKnight is insisting that the gospel is the consummation of the story of Israel–yes! But if there is one area where the creed is deficient it is precisely here. There is no “according to the scriptures,” there is no OT, there is no Israel. The creator God has a son whom he sent.
  • Is the creed a faithful summary of Paul’s gospel? No, for reason number two: Paul’s declaration is that Jesus is “the” Lord, the Creed says “our” Lord. In other words, the Creed is the beginning of the soterian gospel that McKnight has written the book to counter. There are other reasons why the Creed is quite different from 1 Cor 15 as well, but hey–this is my hobby horse. You know that I am wary of the creeds as lenses for reading scripture, or as the most accurate summaries of the Story.
  • I’m concerned that using 1 Cor 15 has curtailed the power of the Gospels to contribute to McKnight’s argument. I agree that there is much to the idea that the gospels are passion narratives with lengthy introductions. However, there is a Mark 1-8 in addition to a Mark 8-16. I think that it is precisely in figuring out how Mark 1-8 are gospel, not in hurrying to the crucifixion, that the “gospel culture” McKnight hopes to propagate is going to be established. It might be that our evangelical obsession with the cross is, itself, a significant part of the paradigm that needs to be broken up. I thought that Embracing Grace pushed some of these issues a bit better.

The book is replete with powerful, important statements such as these:

“The question is not about whether Jesus preached justification; the question is about whether he preached the Story of Israel coming to its completion in the story of himself as a saving story.” (106)

“From this point on, Jesus claims, everyone’s moral life is to be measured by whether they live according to his moral vision.” (107)

“… the book of Acts reveals that gospeling was not driven by the salvation story or the atonement story. It was driven by the Story of Israel, and in fact makes most sense in that story.” (134, emphasis original)

The book is sure to generate significant conversations, especially in the more traditional, conservative evangelical world toward which the argument is largely directed. It is written so as to be accessible to everyone, and would be a great conversation starter for many small groups and pastoral staffs.

The One Gospel?

I’ve recently been reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, a book that has me digging around in some familiar territory of where the Rule of Faith fits into the Christian narrative, how well it represents the biblical story, etc.

In dealing with “gospel,” McKnight starts with 1 Cor 15: “Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures, was buried, was raised on the third day according to the scriptures; then he appeared…”

Paul claims that this is the one gospel that everyone proclaims.

I very much like this as a summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But at the risk of embracing a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” I also want to suggest that every time someone claims, “This is what everyone has always said,” they are engaging in a polemical framing of their own claims that probably deserves at least a little bit of nuance, and perhaps considerable qualification.

This is not to deny that 1 Cor 15 is a great summary of the gospel, but it is to suggest that there is no single telling of the gospel that is always proclaimed every time.

We could attack this from a couple of different angles.

First, within Paul himself there is some variation. In Gal 3 Paul writes, “Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham saying, ‘All the nations will be blessed in you.'”

The blessing of Abraham for the gentiles is the gospel. The nations being wrapped up in the faith of Abraham and promise of God is the gospel. Interestingly, there is almost no resurrection in Galatians.

Then, we might go to Acts. Acts does not offer us a theology of Jesus “dying for our sins” in its sermons. In fact, Acts contains a sermon in which the crucifixion isn’t mentioned at all (Acts 17). These sermons see the crucifixion bringing such guilt upon Israel as to demonstrate that Israel is as much in need of forgiveness as the nations.

Or, we might go to Jesus. And here’s where I wish McKnight had gone a different direction. To take Mark as an example, Jesus goes out proclaiming the gospel: “Repent, for the reign of God has drawn near!” The advent of the kingdom of God is itself the good news.

Not merely the death of Jesus (Mark 8-16) but the life as well (Mark 1-8) is good news. When Jesus casts out demons–this is enacting the gospel. When Jesus feeds the 5,000–this is enacting the gospel.

There are ways to connect this life of Jesus in the Gospels with the continuing life of the resurrected Jesus in Paul’s letters, but even at the basic level of “gospel,” we have a broad, rich picture in the NT.

So what do we have to say if we are to claim that we proclaim the good news? And should we be suspicious whenever someone tells us that this is what people have always confessed as Christians?

A Flawed Gospel?

What does a flawed gospel look like? Dunn reads Paul like this:

What is so agonizing for Paul is that if Israel does not finally embrace the Christ, then his own gospel is flawed at its heart–the gospel of God’s righteousness, his free grace and faithfulness to the undeserving and ungodly; if it does not continue to Israel despite Israel’s unfaithfulness then it is not the gospel which he proclaims to all. (Romans 9-16, 532)