Anyone who’s read this blog more than twice knows I’m big on a big gospel. Another way of saying it is that I disagree with reduced modern usages of the term “gospel” or “salvation” that are significantly narrower in scope than the usage of that term in the scriptures. I’ve said it before and I say again, the gospel of the New Testament is more than “God forgives/justifies sinners.” Likewise, “salvation” in the New Testament, let alone the whole bible, is more than forgiveness and justification; just do a New Testament word study on the greek word “sozo” to see what the NT writers think when they think about Jesus “saving” people.
So here’s what I’m wondering: When we narrow the concept of “salvation” to a smaller concept than the biblical one, how does that also narrow our ecclesiology, our ideas of what a church is and is called to be? How does our idea of “gospel” shape our idea of “church?” How would a more robust gospel change our idea of church and our practice of it?
In the first post in this brief series, I said I’d post on each word of this central, and original “creed” of Christianity. I could (and may still) end this series with a post on “Jesus.” I mentioned at the end of the last post:
I’ll leave you to the gospels, to Acts, to the letters to find out what all is in this king’s agenda and regular activities. It’s good, good stuff, though, I’ll tell you that right now.
Because of the power of this government, everything about Jesus, the one Christ-ened with power by God to lead and transform, is news. The specifics of what he does with God’s power and what he commands and empowers us to do is what makes the news good.
Who is this Jesus that God has given all authority in heaven and the earth? What’s his agenda? What are his priorities? To answer this question I urge people to read the gospels. Please intentionally try to shelve what your own tradition tells you are Jesus’ priorities. Let Matthew give you his take. Let Mark and Luke do the same. Let John. Let Jesus. Look at his actions and words and try to discern what this guy is about. Reading any one gospel only takes a half-hour or so. I guarantee that reading any one of them, if you’ve never done it, will shift your idea about who Jesus is and what matters to him.
Warning: you may find yourself wondering why your church does what it does and how.
Here’s proof of my genius: Christianity is about Jesus. 🙂 It’s not a movement led or inspired by me, or you, or the Pope, or even Billy Graham. Nope. Christianity is a Jesus-centered, Jesus-shaped, Jesus-led movement for the benefit of all the universe.
Or at least it’s supposed to be. And that’s the first, most obvious and wonderful reminder of the statement that “Jesus is Lord.” Christianity is well known for its exclusivist claims about Jesus. We quote Jesus’ statement that he is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except by him. Unfortunately, we tend to use this as if it was merely a statement by Jesus that no one goes to heaven when they die apart from Jesus. While that’s true, I wish Christianity was better known for the larger exclusivity claimed for Jesus in that quote and in the statement that “Jesus is Lord.” When we say that “Jesus is Lord” we’re not just saying Jesus has the exclusive power to give life after death. We’re saying he has all authority over everything, everywhere, which is more in line with what the gospels seem intent on trying to tell us about him. He has power over wine and weather, forgiveness and fish, sin and sickness, demons and death. This larger authority is a far, far better and more natural reason for us to become his disciples in this life, than authority over the afterlife alone (which likely why the great commission is phrased like it is). Who better to follow than the Man with all power and authority over every facet of life? Really. Got a better suggestion? Who and why exactly?
When someone runs for president of the United States and is expected to have a decent shot at winning, the whole world wants to know what this person is about: what’s their past; what formed them; what are their passions; what does their life’s work so far tell us about them? What we want to know is this: what is this person going to do with the power and title of the presidency of the United States? A perfectly reasonable thing to want to know in light of the power of that office to affect so many. If a U.S. president wants to address the nation, television stations will, in mass, interrupt their typical programs to cover every line. Why? Because this person has power to affect many. His or her intentions are news.
Let me suggest that this is precisely what the gospels do for us, only the office in question is not the presidency of the United States. The office in question is the throne of David, God’s Messiah, who will lead the whole world with God’s own agenda and power, and whose reign will never end. Jesus’ ideas of good will cover the earth. His idea of what’s right is the basis for his judgment. That’s why the gospels don’t often self-describe themselves as “the good news about justification” or something similar. Rather, they routinely self identify as the good news about Jesus, the Christ (annointed king). The atonement, thank God, is part of this king’s great deeds, even his greatest, but also thanks to God, it’s not all there is to the ‘gospel’ of Jesus and the government he’s now leading and calling us to receive and enter on the earth. Because of the power of this government, everything about Jesus, the one Christ-ened with power by God to lead and transform, is news. The specifics of what he does with God’s power and what he commands and empowers us to do is what makes the news good.
I’ll leave you to the gospels, to Acts, to the letters to find out what all is in this king’s agenda and regular activities. It’s good, good stuff, though, I’ll tell you that right now. To quote a favorite hymn, “When Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” Jesus is Lord. More to come.
Years ago, N. T. Wright and a review of the biblical texts convinced me that “Jesus is Lord” was the irreducible core of the gospel message; it is the centerpiece of what the Church believes and has to tell the world (whether we all realize it or not!). (This isn’t going to be a post or series to prove that, fyi; if you’re interested in that find some N.T. Wright to read and also read all the ways that Jesus and the NT generally talk about gospel, and try to synthesize them.) Many others have noted this, along with the idea that the phrase was also the first “creed” of Christianity. I’ve also used the phrase personally as a meditation, as a defense to temptation, as worship, etc., etc. and with much, much benefit.
Alan (see the link above) makes a very interesting point about creeds: namely that while “Jesus is Lord” initially served to unite Christians and be the dividing line b/n those who were and were not part of Christ’s ekklesia/church, the more current (and longer) creeds were used to distinguish Christians from other Christians. I’m not sure if Alan is right, or that things are quite that clean, but I do know that creeds have tended to get longer as more and more doctrines have been added by this or that group to the supposed “essentials of the faith” with corresponding heresies being catalogued.
While I agree with all of the ancient creeds, I can’t help but think every time someone says we need to use the Nicene or some other ancient creed more often in worship or as a basic confession (essential for membership) in our churches, that we lose something, that we distort Jesus and his own emphases somehow. For example, I believe that Jesus was born to a virgin. I find it unhelpful, though, that this point gets included as “an essential” while the teachings that Jesus said summed up all the law and the prophets (Love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind & strength, and one’s neighbor as oneself) gets no mention. Do the creeds create a different set of “essentials” than what Jesus taught? If so, is everybody okay with that? I keep thinking that the shorter, “Jesus is Lord” would better serve; that it would focus us on the Man himself and his priorities; that in this case, less really is more. How about you? I’m going to post a little on each word of that creed and see where it leads.
By the way, for those looking for another Vineyard post, I’d also credit the Vineyard for this holistic Jesus-focus in my life. I credit my S. Baptist upbringing for telling me that the Bible is God’s word and we do well to treat (all of) it accordingly. But when it came to Jesus and the good news about him, they really only gave me the last third/half of the gospels as “gospel.” Only Jesus’ death was gospel, when push came to shove, because that was the act of substitution, that’s what allowed me to go to heaven, and that was the good news. It was the Vineyard’s influence that started me wondering if everything else in “the gospels” was also good news, that Christianity was about more than surviving judgment, though that was pretty darn good. Thanks significantly to the Vineyard, I started to see that Jesus was talking about the gospel in terms of God’s reign coming to earth, and that Jesus was the embodiment, in word and deed, of what God had in mind to do as the rightful King of the world. Good news, folks: “Jesus is Lord (over everything threatening humanity, within and without).” More to come.
When I discuss healing and prophecy and the miraculous with Christians who have hesitations about those practices, one of the recurring objections is the concern that people who are sick or handicapped or the like not be blamed for not being healed, usually for lacking faith. This morning I was reminded of that as I was thinking through a few of the stories in which Jesus rebuked the disciples for having little faith in him. The first thing that leapt out at me as I thought about such stories was that when it came to the miraculous, it was so often his disciples — the insiders, the co-workers with him — whom he rebuked for lack of faith, not the needy folks coming to be healed. As I thought of the many times and ways Jesus did this, including when the disciples failed to cast a demon out of a person during his transfiguration, it dawned on me that Jesus does rebuke his apprentices for lack of faith (evidenced in a variety of ways), but never does he rebuke a person acutely aware of their need for healing. With those that are hurting or on the outside–the bruised reeds, the smoldering wicks–he may still discuss their faith, but he is much more gentle, even commending or praising the faith that he finds in such people. Think of the interchange which climaxes in the now famous “I believe; help my unbelief!” That’s as close as Jesus gets to correcting the faith of someone in a felt need. Of course, that interchange is so non-condemning, so honestly helpful, that it rivals if not outstrips his dealings with Thomas as the most loved among us doubters.
He was more blunt, corrective or even confrontational not only with his own students, but also with those who had more official training in the Jewish faith that didn’t believe, and with those communities who personally witnessed him doing signs and wonders but still didn’t believe him as “Christ.” The latter folks are given not mere correction but “Woes” and warning. But you never see Jesus being short or harsh with those who are about to lose their daughter, or just lost their brother, or in some other way are, in that moment, in the middle of experiencing some the real poverty of the human experience, even if their faith in him is weak. With them he is more gentle, even if still urging them, pulling them, to believe. It seems he is even more gentle with his disciples when they are personally experiencing loss (look at the Lazarus incident). Therefore, I think it is safe to say and teach that a practice of the miraculous that is modeled after Christ is not going to create any blame or burden for those who personally need healing or rescue from one of life’s tragedies. We might call this the “smoldering wick” principle and it seems to extend even to Christ’s disciples when he might otherwise be more blunt about their lack of faith.
But this led me to a second, related thought especially concerning his disciples. Clearly, Jesus wanted everyone he encountered, even the smoldering wicks and especially his disciples, to “believe” in him, and, what’s more, he expected their faith in him to include his power over death, over demons, over disease, over nature (and rebuked them for lacking it). And it goes farther still: he even commanded them to do the same things on his behalf and rebuked them and occasionally seemed exasperated when they lacked the faith to do it. But my question is this: Can we effectively argue (or should we even try) that Jesus wants us to have a materially different faith than that which he obviously sought to instill not only in the disciples, but in everyone he encountered? Can we read Jesus’ rebukes to the disciples and to the religious community of the day and exempt ourselves if we lack in our faith what they lacked in theirs? When Jesus tells someone in the NT that they have little faith or great faith, what exactly is the content of that faith that they lack and should ours be different?
It is obvious from the NT that Jesus wanted his disciples to have faith that went well beyond whether or not he forgave them (and whether they could forgive on his behalf). Yes, he does want us to know that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and that “if [we] forgive anyone, they are forgiven.” But if Jesus himself or the gospel writers are to be believed, God seemed at least equally concerned that Jesus’ disciples knew that he had authority on earth [and they through him] over diseases, demons, death, and over nature, as well as forgiving sins. He wasn’t happy with their “faith” when it didn’t include any one of these things and when they lacked the faith to do the same things on his behalf. He summed it up in his final great commission to them: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, therefore, make disciples . . . [.] His authority over everything (as God’s anointed, the “Christ”) as richly demonstrated in the gospels, is the basis of the Great Commission. Our “faith”, according to Jesus, needs to include not only his authority and willingness to forgive, but his authority over all things in heaven and earth, and in our authority from him to do the same things he did, as he said that anyone who believed in him would do. If our faith in him, and the actions that flow from it, should be markedly different than what he was so insistent on his first followers having, what’s the basis? I really don’t think that’s a search with a happy ending. We’d be better off, I believe, to let the gospels transform our faith and practice than justify our own. I’ll be posting the content of an upcoming local training on that topic soon.
Scot McKnight has started a discussion over an extremely important topic: doubts (for people of “faith”). He is highlighting what may be the best book I’ve seen for Christians in the middle of serious doubts, and he’s asking for stories and experiences. Drop in at Scot’s blog an join the discussion. Below is my comment as well as comments from Scot and David Opderbeck that really surprised and encouraged me; we need to talk about this more in our churches:
My most serious doubts were about my own salvation and along the Calvinist-Arminian fault lines. There was never a doubt about whether God was real, just whether I was “in” or “out” with him. Growing up in evangelical/fundamentalist churches and schools, that was THE question, and it remained the question for me for years even after I finally gave in to Jesus in a serious way. I knew I was “saved by faith alone” so what happened if I doubted my salvation? It was like having doubt in a faith-healing except the healing was my justification. It was a downward spiral of doubt and depression. Those passages in Hebrews about never entering God’s rest because of unbelief and others couldn’t have been more intense.
No amount of theologizing helped or could have helped. As a lawyer in training, I saw holes in every would-be propositional solution. Here’s what helped, in no particular order: I found solace in the Psalms, where people were “officially” praying what I was feeling and fearing. And I made the decision that even if I was damned/not elect and such a decision “does not depend on [my] desire or effort”, I still had to follow Jesus as best I could, mainly for my wife’s sake (my thought was for helping her and treating her as she should be treated). So basically, I eventually just accepted that I couldn’t do anything about it and gave the issue of my justification over to Jesus (the judge) while I read the Psalms and went to church (thankfully not an argumentative one). I accepted that I may be damned unless he said otherwise, which I may not know about in this life if at all. Over time, my thinking changed and the locus of my “faith” and hope slowly shifted from the salvation formula (which seemed to hinge on my faith) to Jesus as a person and on his love (a theme from the Psalms). Things got better. Much, much better.
. . . not unlike my own experience in my college years and early seminary years. Shifting from “am I in?” and “do I have that saving faith or is my faith a self-deceptive fraud?” to “Look to Christ” led me out of that morass and spiral, during which time I learned deeply in theology, into a second naivete.
I can totally, totally relate to your story. Isn’t it interesting that the end result of the kind of struggle you describe often is a kind of resignation: “it is all in Christ’s hands and there is nothing more I can do about it.” We realize then that this ultimately is “faith,” and all the formulas and formulations often are ways in which we try to control things ourselves.
“[Campbell] rightly insists that the material content of Romans 5-8, transformation or sanctification or “ontological reconstitution” (e.g., p. 185), is not supplemental to the gospel or to justification but constitutive of them:
Paul’s account of sanctification is his gospel. His description of deliverance and cleansing “in Christ,” through the work of the Spirit, at the behest of the Father, the entire process being symbolized by baptism, is the good news. It requires no supplementation by other [e.g., “contractual”] systems. (p. 934; cf. pp. 187-88)
To which I gave this comment:
I’m encouraged by the bits and pieces of Campbell’s work that you and others are highlighting. When I’m explaining the gospel to people now, I tend to start with a description that “the good news” is about all the good that God is doing and wants to do for the world through Jesus. Everything he’s done, is doing and has in mind to do is good news (which is what the entire NT seems to be about). We are called to trust this good news, and get on board. I see a recovery of this “big gospel” in the quotes from Campbell’s book, and it encourages me to keep opening myself to that good news and keep living and giving it.