Don't Gut the Gospel of Its PurposeThursday, June 23, 2011
Last month, John Starke and I had a friendly blog conversation about the place of the church in how we think and speak about the gospel. John expressed concern about the Story-Announcement-Community emphasis explained in my book Counterfeit Gospels, particularly because the metaphor could lead people to think the church (an implication of the gospel) is too tightly tied to the gospel announcement.
I agree with John that the church is not the gospel, and that the gospel births the church. But I believe the potential for error is greater in making too sharp a separation between the gospel and the church. There are times that our theological precision can lead to ideas that were foreign to the sensibilities of the apostles.
A Scenario from Baptist History
Let me give an example from my Baptist heritage. Baptists disagree with the idea that salvation is somehow dependent upon a person's baptism. We want to (correctly, I believe) make a distinction between repentance and faith as the condition of salvation and the act of baptism as the expression of salvation. But there are times when, in our zeal to make this distinction, we unintentionally downplay the importance of believer's baptism.
The Apostle Peter's sermon at Pentecost ended with a command: "Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins." Now imagine a back-row Baptist critiquing Peter's sermon, chiding him for saying, "Peter, Peter, the way you've formulated your gospel presentation might confuse people into thinking that baptism is a requirement for salvation. You might confuse the implication with the announcement. You need to make sharper distinctions."
The Baptist is right to distinguish between the act of salvation and the expression of baptism, but wrong to push that distinction to the point he imposes foreign sensibilities on the Apostle. It's obvious that Peter saw repentance and baptism as so intertwined that he thought the danger of too sharply separating the two was stronger than the danger of putting them too close together.
The Gospel and its Purpose
Now back to the gospel announcement and the gospel community as two legs of the three-legged stool. The announcement and the community aren't the same thing, but they are tightly intertwined. And though I agree with John that certain distinctions must be made, I want to stay true to the way the Scriptural authors hold the announcement and the community together. I believe making too sharp a division is more problematic than keeping them too close together.
Let me put it this way: If you excise the gospel community from your thinking about the gospel announcement, you gut the gospel of its purpose. Though the church is not the subject of the gospel announcement (Christ alone is the subject, of course), the church is a necessary object. Christ's death has a purpose: to save sinners and incorporate them into a community that reflects His glory.
Story - Announcement - Community
Too many times, we think of the gospel as a story that jumps from the Garden of Eden (we've all sinned) right to the cross (but Jesus fixes everything). On its own, that works fine in getting across the systematic points of our need for salvation and God's provision in Christ, but from a biblical theological perspective, it doesn't do justice to what's actually in the text. Once a person becomes a Christian and cracks the Bible, they're going to wonder what the big deal is about Israel and the covenant, since that storyline takes up roughly 75% of the Bible. Getting people into that story is important. As D.A. Carson says, the announcement is incoherent without it. That's why I want to hold story and announcement together.
Furthermore, the gospel has a telos - the purpose of calling out a people, which is why I want to keep "gospel community" close to the announcement. I fear that most evangelicals see the church as "just an implication of the gospel" instead of thinking, This is the whole point of the good news - God forming a people for His glory and the good of the world.
The Gospel Community in the New Testament
The backdrop for the gospel announcement are three covenants (Abrahamic, Davidic, and the New Covenant) that culminate in God calling out a people who will know Him and reflect His glory. It's no coincidence that immediately following Mark's summation of Christ's gospel preaching "The kingdom of God has come near" (Mark 1:15) we see Jesus calling the first disciples (1:16-20). The gospel is proclaimed in order that the community might be formed. The good news constitutes a people.
Jesus succeeded where Adam failed. He succeeded where Israel failed. He died in the place of His people, rose from the dead in victory, and has set about building a new temple - a body of believers from all nations, all to His praise and glory. The formation of the church gets to the "why" of Christ's death and resurrection. Look at what Paul writes in Titus 2:14:
He gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for Himself a people for His own possession, eager to do good works.
We often emphasize the first purpose - that Christ died to redeem us from sin. But we can't miss the second part of that purpose, the "why" of Christ's cleansing us from sin - that we would be a people for His own possession, eager to do good works. Just verses later, Paul again makes the gospel's purpose clear:
When the goodness of God and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us - not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7).
Our personal salvation incorporates us into the family of God. We are reconciled to the Father and are promised an inheritance. Peter uses this language as well:
According to His great mercy, He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable... (1 Peter 1:3-4)
This idea of receiving the promised Holy Spirit, which signifies the forming of a new people, is central to the way Peter presented the gospel at Pentecost:
"Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call."
The Spirit is the sign that God is forming a new people. Peter makes it even more explicit in his first letter: "For Christ also suffered for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God..." (1 Pet. 3:18) That "us" is plural.
The idea of sharing the inheritance as a family is expressed by Paul as well when speaking of the mission of the Gentiles. When he recounts his dramatic conversion story in Acts 26, Paul quotes the Risen Jesus as saying:
"I now send you to them to open their eyes so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that by faith in Me they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified." (26:17-18).
Do you see the connection? Faith in Christ assures us of "forgiveness of sins" and "a share among the sanctified." Reconciliation with God leads to inclusion among His people. Paul has no trouble keeping the announcement of forgiveness together with the incorporation into the gospel community.
Then there is Ephesians 1-3. In Ephesians 1, we get the wide-angled view of the gospel story, culminating with the gospel announcement of Jesus Christ (1:20-23). The gospel announcement is brought down to the individual level in Ephesians 2:1-10: For by grace we have been saved through faith. Why? For the creation of the gospel community in 2:11-22 and chapter 3. Story, Announcement, Community.
In Ephesians 3, we see Paul even more explicitly linking the church to the gospel announcement. He declares that Christ is our peace, the One who tears down the dividing wall of hostility, and brings together Jew and Gentile in order to create one new man from the two. Then, watch how he speaks of the Gentiles: they are coheirs, members of the same body, and partners of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (3:6) Immediately following this statement, he says, "I was made a servant of this gospel..." (3:7). Apparently, Paul has no trouble linking the gospel announcement with its purpose: the creation of the gospel community.
The theological body of Paul's letter to the Romans is bookended by this same emphasis. The letter begins with Paul's proclamation that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, for the Jew and the Gentile alike (1:16), and the letter's theological portion ends with the breathtaking picture of Jews and Gentiles singing together the praises of God (15:7-13). The ultimate aim of the gospel is the glory of the God who brings salvation through judgment, and the gospel community is what puts that glory on display.
Don't Miss the Point
So, back to my original point. The gospel announcement of Jesus Christ must be understood within the context of the story that gives it meaning. This announcement then births the gospel community. Saying the good news is limited to the gospel announcement is like saying, "The good news is that the adoption papers are signed" without a view to the purpose of the papers - to incorporate an orphan into a family! We can say all day long that becoming part of the family is the implication of the adoption process, not the process itself. But to make that point too forcefully risks losing the point of it all.
Christ's death and resurrection completes the transaction of the gospel, yes. But the purpose of Christ's work is that, in union with Him, we would be reconciled to the Father and adopted into His family.
Good news all around! So, let's make sure that in our thinking and speaking about the centrality of the gospel announcement we not leave out the gospel-formed family. Otherwise, we gut the gospel of its purpose.