This post is an entry in the Prologue to Missional Discussion Synchroblog.
I am late with my entry in the syncrhoblog this week, but I am hoping to redeem my unsatisfactory (to me) entry from last week, especially as this week’s questions seem connected quite closely to last week’s.
The questions posed the synchrobloggers:
Should the definition of “salvation” be expanded beyond personal redemption of sins to include social justice? If not, what is the difficulty with the question of personal salvation?
Does God save individuals outside of anything other than the proclamation of the gospel through believers who make up the church?
My answer to the first question is simple: No. I believe the gospel is the historical fact of what Jesus Christ accomplished: sinless sacrifice for sin atonement, bodily resurrection for eternal life. This is the basic, non-negotiable truth of the news that God declares good. Notice that it is not advice, not suggestion, not instruction. Nor is it vague spirituality, steps to enlightenment, skills to implement, or precepts to practice. It is information; it is an announcement. It is news. News to be believed, yes, but it is not news of something that has yet to happen or something we can make happen, but rather something that has already happened and was made to happen by God himself.
There may be no need to further distill the gospel; Paul has done not just a good job in 1 Corinthians 15 but an authoritative job. But if we were to summarize his own summary, we might put it this way: The good news is that eternal life is possible because Jesus died to forgive sins and came back to life to conquer death. You may have walked down a church aisle, as I have, to accept an invitation to believe just that.
The gospel is what Jesus has accomplished; news of something that already happened. But what Jesus already did opens up an array of heavenly delights that he is doing and will do. Those things are good news too, but only in so far as they emanate from the gospel “of first importance,” as Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians 15. This is why I like to call penal substitution the sharp edge of the multi-faceted diamond that is atonement and Jesus’ death and resurrection the sharp edge of the many implications and applications of the gospel.
Where does the social justice stuff play in, then?
The New Testament talks about the gospel in ways other than the sharp edge, as its Spirit-inspired writers draw out the aftershocks of the good report. Jesus himself, and John the Baptist before him, are recorded in Matthew’s Gospel as preaching the “gospel of the kingdom,” in Mark’s and Luke’s just “the gospel.” They were not preaching the death and resurrection of Christ, at least not directly at first. They were announcing that God’s righteousness was finally coming to bear upon the real world, that the manifest presence of his sovereignty was finally breaking into history, as is the hope seen throughout the longing of Israel in the Old Testament. This in-breaking kingdom, of course, centers on Christ as King, and the coronation and exaltation of Christ as King hinges on his death and resurrection, so the “gospel of the kingdom” and Paul’s gospel of first importance are not really separate concepts, but degrees of magnification of the same concept. All analogies break down but perhaps we could say that Jesus’ death and resurrection are an electron and a proton, and that Christ’s kingdom is the atom they make up. (In this case, that atom would be hydrogen, but I’m an idiot when it comes to science, so that’s as far as I’ll take the analogy.) Jesus died and resurrected according to the Scriptures, which means God’s kingdom has come according to the Scriptures.
The kingdom of God was being inaugurated by and through Christ before his death, of course, but this inauguration was predicated upon his eventual (thorned) crowning and elevation upon the cross. (His announcement of the kingdom and his acting like the king preceded his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as well.) We could step back a bit and examine how Christ’s sinless life was integral to the efficacy of his eventual substitutionary sacrifice, which means his life before his death is implicitly integral to Paul’s gospel of first importance, but that sort of theological rabbit trail is beyond the scope of this post.
What we can say is that one primary way the Bible talks about the gospel is in the sense of “the kingdom,” but we cannot, as some writers and pastors today do, hermetically seal this form of the gospel off from the core announcement of the gospel found in 1 Corinthians 15. In fact, if you keep reading further into the chapter, you will see in verses 22-25, that Paul begins connecting Christ’s work on the cross and out of the tomb to the coming and consummation of God’s kingdom. In addition, the gospel of all the Scriptures has a cosmic scope that posits God’s glory itself as the sum of the good news. In this wide-angle view of the gospel, the good news is that the peace that was broken at the Fall will be restored in everything from God’s reconciliation with sinners to his establishing of the new heavens and the new earth. A cosmic gospel means the restoration of all things.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, we see the gospel referred to as holding power, as being power itself. Paul says in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is the power of salvation for those who believe it. In Ephesians 3:7 he says the gospel was given to him by God’s power. In 1 Thessalonians 1:5 he says the gospel is accompanied with power. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 he says the message of the gospel is the power of God. In Colossians 1:6 he says the gospel is bearing fruit and growing. Clearly this is information that is not merely information!
Mark 1:1 tells us that the gospel is Jesus himself. Acts 20:24 tells us that the gospel is God’s grace. Romans 15:16 tells us that God is the gospel. 2 Corinthians 4:4 tells us that the gospel is not just Christ, but his glory. Ephesians 6:15 tells us that the gospel is peace.
What we see in all of this is not many different gospels, but the many facets to the gospel of first importance. It is one song, but many notes. There are also implications and applications of the gospel: the birth of the Church, the reconciliation between sinners, the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the healing of the sick, the deliverance of the demoniac, the rescue of the impoverished, etc. All of these and more are part of the fruit that the power of the gospel bears. But the essential mustard seed of the gospel is the incredible historical event of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. This is good news because you and I are sinners who are under God’s wrath and will die under the penalty of that wrath—destined for hell—without this divine intervention.
The second question posed, again, is this: Does God save individuals outside of anything other than the proclamation of the gospel through believers who make up the church?
My answer may seem a cop-out, I’m sure, but I default back to the one halfway decent thing I think I said in the last entry: That the church is the locus of God’s saving work doesn’t mean the church is the limit of it.
I believe babies who die and the mentally deficient are elect unto salvation. Obviously the church’s proclamation of the explicit gospel and conscious belief in its propositions is not taking place here. So God can (and I think does, probably) save people outside the proclamation of the gospel by believers. But usually when someone asks this question, they mean to tease out the implications for missions and evangelism. And I cannot say what Scripture doesn’t: we don’t get to go hands off because of what God may or may not be doing to renew all things. We are commanded to preach the gospel and make disciples, and that’s what we should do.
If God saves people apart from proclamation of the gospel by believers it will be in spite of our efforts and strategies, not because of them.
Others participating in the conversation:
Rick Meigs: The Blind Beggar
Bill Kinnon: kinnon.tv
Brother Maynard: Subversive Influence
David Fitch: Reclaiming the Mission
Tiffany Smith: Missional Mayhem
Jared Wilson: The Gospel-Driven Church
Jonathan Dodson: Creation Project
Feel free to explore and read their takes on the question. So for the sake of conversation, leave a comment with your own answer to the questions “Should the definition of “salvation” be expanded beyond personal redemption of sins to include social justice? If not, what is the difficulty with the question of personal salvation?
Does God save individuals outside of anything other than the proclamation of the gospel through believers who make up the church?”