So, hopefully without too much distortion, I presented the ‘normal’ Gospel – certainly the one I was brought up with – yesterday. What though if that presentation is not a true representation of what we find in the pages of the NT? Years ago in a process that is probably the root of the ‘new perspective’ on Paul E.P. Sanders suggested that Paul’s understanding was shaped by an awakening that Jesus was the solution, therefore the question he had to work on was what was the problem (plight). This of course is the reverse of most presentations. Problem = Universal Fall / Solution = cross. A personal response is then required otherwise personal guilt remains.
The implications of our understanding of the Gospel has enormous knock-on effects. So taking a cue from Sanders but not applying it as he did, what if we start at the ‘end’. The outcome is for ‘the reconciliation of all things’ under one head. The final putting in place, rightly ordering of all things – maybe what we can summarise as the fullness of the manifestation of the kingdom of God. Of course, for some, that might instantly lead them to a ‘Universalism’ conclusion – though by no means a necessary conclusion. With that sort of final outcome, the perfection of Creation it is necessary to understand the death of Jesus as being at a cosmic level. It is indeed a political event. The Gospel being political, corporate in its outworking. The church, as per Israel before, is not to be a separate community condemning the others, but a forerunning community of the community.
To reduce the Gospel to a personal level is a much more recent understanding of the cross (with such understandings as guilt / debt etc.). The prominent (though not only) early church view was one of dealing with everything hostile, disarming the powers that held the ‘world’ in bondage. It was not of paying a debt but of breaking the stranglehold of ‘Satanic’ bondage. Freedom from bondage – yes freedom from sin as that was the cause of bondage, but not primarily freedom from sin in terms of a ‘guilt’ issue.
We see this in Matthew’s description of Jesus’ ministry as ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21). That chapter places Israel in ‘Exile’, as living in the punishment resulting from their sins (or in Deuteronomic / Pauline words – ‘under a curse’). Unable to be who they were meant to be (not free as a result of sin) they were subject to all kinds of over-rulers. Rome, but Jesus had bigger fish to fry than Rome. Not simply Roman, but also internal with their own religious rulers who complete with their ideologies made their disciples even twice the son / daughter of hell that they were. Yet the internal and the external, the religious and the political rulers, were simply sub-rulers for the one known as ‘the Satan’.
The cross means ‘we’ are free from our sins and this has to be primarily a power issue, a transfer from one ‘kingdom’ to another. ‘Born again’ is an appropriate language to use, but we need to remember that it was to a religious leader those words were spoken. It is probably not inappropriate to use that narrative to suggest that Jesus could well say to many ‘born again Christians’ that they need to be born again or they will not ‘see’ the kingdom of God. Like so much of our language we reduce in meaning what it seems to me the original phrases implied. (Classic is where we reduce ‘being saved’ to something along the lines of ‘will not burn in hell at the end!’)
So what is the good news that is centred in the death and resurrection of Jesus? It is that there is good news. God is not condemning the building project that we have messed up so badly. The plans remain, our contribution to the debt has been resolved. It’s a new day, indeed so great is the transformation that those who can believe this will enter a ‘new world’ being energised in incredible ways to work on this project. The project being transformation. Those who likewise – even with other beliefs – but carry the same core values will be found to be ‘for us for they were not against us’.
Evangelism then is living and communicating in that context. It is living out an incredible generosity that invests in friendships even when there is no return (not even a ‘they came to Christ as a result of friendship evangelism’). It is being energised by a convinced hope. It is not proselytising but it is seeing the image of God in one and all. Evangelism is not seeing the only thing that counts as people coming to ‘salvation’ but the need to be consistent in faith. It does not mean no sharing of faith, no leading of people to Jesus, far from it, but it does not reduce evangelism to that level, which at its worst is simply a marketing exercise.
Now are those two just variations on a theme? Or are they two different Gospels. One Bible in common, one Jesus that the believer declares to be ‘Lord’ but some huge differences in application.
Here are some of the potential differences:
Jesus is Lord
- personal Saviour whom I worship and this will affect my personal morality
- or Lord of all whom I owe my allegiance to and has implications for my lifestyle in the light of global issues and my allegiance to all other powers including the state
Enemies of the Gospel
- those of other faiths, and sinners in general
- or those who oppose the values of the kingdom, those who align with the powers who rule
Sin has been paid for
- Jesus died for our sins and I am no longer under wrath and guilt, and one day will not burn in hell
- or, all the powers have been broken. Powers that were in place as a result of sin. Now we are free
- Evangelism is witnessing and bringing people to a point of decision
- or co-operating for the outworking of God’s order in and through all things
So dependent on the lens that it is viewed through will depend on what is seen. As for two pages or two Gospels, I currently think there is a small overlap. There is common ground but too much ground where there will be happy and mutually-beneficial co-working in the same space.