On the first day of Theology 1, I tell my students what their final assignment for Theology 2 will be: “Give me the Gospel in 500 words. Give me the Gospel in 48 words. Give me the Gospel in 12 Words. Give me the Gospel in three words, and finally in one word.” This assignment reflects my conviction on the importance of the Gospel. It is not acceptable in my understanding to place the discussion of the Gospel in an evangelism course, which limits its scope, or to speak about the Gospel in one separate lecture, which makes it disjointed from the rest of the themes. The Gospel needs to drive systematic theology.
Systematic theology has often been uncomfortable with the Gospel of Christ. We study God in parameters that take away focus from Christ, his work, and his words. Categories such as “theology proper,” “harmartiology,” “epistemology,” “pneumatology,” “ecclesiology,” and “eschatology” are helpful to understand God through the dissection of biblical revelation into compartments. But studying the categories without a mindful inclusion of how the good news of Christ affects those categories can lead to a limited concept of what Christ accomplished. We can end up with pieces of knowledge about God, without an understanding of how it all fits together in Christ. Systematic theology can become dominated by philosophy, definitions with proof-texting, the study of doctrines, or novel understandings. “Systematics” needs to be dominated by Christ. This can be achieved by intentionally bringing “Christology” to every category and theme.
An example of how the Gospel can be brought into the study of systematic theology without the total deconstruction of it is in the study of the attributes of God. Traditional teaching of this divides the divine attributes into communicable and incommunicable ones. Some examples of the incommunicable attributes are: omnipresence, immutability, and eternality. Since this article deals with eternality, I will bring this attribute into the light of the good news of Christ.
The eternality of God can be presented on different levels. We can begin with a definition of it, and then include some supporting biblical texts. We can discuss some of the philosophical ramifications of it. Maybe include some time talking about how divine foreknowledge fits. This helps us in our understanding of the attribute of eternality, and it needs to be discussed in this way to some degree.
However, the above discussion is not Gospel centric; they are foundational understandings about God, but it does not include any of the “good news” that the person and work of Christ brings to the conversation. Enter Christology as Jesus greatly developed the concept of eternality.
In studying the concept of eternality in Scripture, the description of it as an incommunicable attribute seems to detract from the tone of the Gospel, if it does not continue that theme with the redemptive narrative found in Christ. The Scriptures assume that God is eternal, and the biblical emphasis is on how this eternality relates to God’s redemptive purpose of mankind.
Though only God possesses this attribute, God desires to share aspects of eternality with mankind. Humans will never have eternality as an attribute as we cannot have an eternity past, need an external source to experience, and we do not transcend time as God does. Indeed, eternality is an incommunicable attribute of God. But from the Gospel perspective, God’s eternity is something he desires us to partake in.
The theme of eternality is magnified in Christ. Eternality is a needed foundational concept, but now Christ brings the “good news” to this foundational concept. So what does Christ bring to the table?
It begins with recognizing that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The first chapter of John’s Gospel declares Christ’s eternality. The “foundational news” is that God is eternal. The “good news” is that Christ is eternal, so the hope and deliverance will be even greater than had been anticipated. This is an essential piece of the Gospel—a critical element to understanding the work and words of Christ. The theme of eternity is characteristic of what he is all about. He is of eternity. He will provide a way for man for eternity. And he will speak of a new worldview that sees this present life in the light of eternity.
We must see the ramifications of the eternality of Christ as a package that includes his personhood, his work, and his worldview. Too often the emphasis is on “eternal life” and what I can get in Christ, rather than on the “eternal Christ,” and what he gifts to me, and how he allows me to see life differently. The change in perspective is subtle, but it is dramatic, changing a mentality of “want can I get from God?” to one that centers upon the realization of who Christ is. The gift of eternal life is one of the greatest benefits in Christ, but it is not the only aspect of eternity found in Christ.
When it comes to Christ and eternality, another “good news” aspect is revealed in that we can now see this world through the eternal perspective. This dramatically changes how we look at hope, suffering and wealth. Simply stated: the things and experiences of this present life don’t last. The present world perspective is changed from “this is all there is, so enjoyment and preservation is the goal,” to the eternal perspective of Christ.
In bringing this theme in, we can now tie a critical foundational piece of our sanctification with the theme of eternity. By doing this we can move further away from a concept that our spiritual maturity is based upon “doing” and into the realm of a “trust transformation” in Christ.
We often meet Christians with the mentality of, “What are the essential basics I need to ‘do’ for God to get the most bang for the buck in this present life, along with a guarantee in heaven?” Our worship of God and our sanctification cannot be based upon such a mentality. The Christian is not about minimalism, nor is the Christian life merely about “doing.”
One life-changing by-product is how we use our financial resources in light of the eternity that Christ reveals. The giving of compassion through our wealth is not to be seen as a deed we do to receive the daily favor of God, neither can it be solely viewed as a responsibility. In Christ, the devaluation of our possessions from the eternal vantage point is the game-changing motivating factor. Without this changed perspective we are dutiful religious people. With it, we live more and more to utilize our finances for God and to help others, because it is not worth anything to keep it for ourselves. An understanding based upon a trust in Christ and his teaching is the key behind the “doing”—not in the “doing” itself.
With this approach traditional systematic theology themes are further developed by Christ and the Gospel. The student begins to see the organic connection of Christ’s personhood, works (completed, ongoing, and future), and words to all of theology. Links are made between worship, faith, salvation, and our life as a believer; it is a continuum. Next comes the discussion on the incommunicable attribute of immutability followed by omnipresence in light of the Gospel. Lectures on epistemology, trinitarianism, sin, soteriology, sanctification, and pneumatology follow—all presented in the light of Christ and the Gospel. Then after about 100 hours of lecture, a final paper is written describing the Gospel in 500 words, 48 words, 12, 3, and, finally, in 1 word. At this point, Lord willing, each student understands the Gospel in simplicity and in depth.