>The several posts I want to write this week are all interrelated in that they arose out of my preparation for and discussion in the Poiema ACG this semester. I’d like to write a recap of the semester, including this previous week where we discussed the Manhattan Declaration, which got us discussing the true nature of the gospel…So, like I said, their all interconnected which makes it tough to know where to find the logical starting point. I don’t know if I’ve found it, but I’m going to start by trying to clarify my understanding of ‘the gospel’ and how it relates to the kingdom and the ‘gospel of the kingdom’.
The discussion on the nature of the gospel began after I read a quote by Michael Horton regarding the Manhattan Declaration. Here’s the quote, “This declaration continues this tendency to define “the gospel” as something other than the specific announcement of the forgiveness of sins and declaration of righteousness solely by Christ’s merits.” Some in the class questioned such a narrow definition of the gospel, pointing out that Jesus came and preached ‘the gospel of the kingdom’. How does this broader understanding of the gospel, the announcement of the good news that God’s reign is being established, relate to the more narrow understanding of the gospel as proclamation of forgiveness based on the atoning work of Jesus on the cross?
Remember the version of Robin Hood starring Kevin Costner as Robin Hood and Alan Rickman (aka Hans Gruber from Die Hard) as the Sheriff of Nottingham. I remember the Sheriff had his witch hag whom he consulted. At one point she sees the return of King Richard and the Sheriff is visibly disturbed. I think the line was ‘that would be terribly inconvenient’. By way of contrast, those loyal to the king longed for his return, waited, looked to the horizon, dreamed of a restored kingdom and remained loyal subjects. So, for one group, the return of the king and the restoration of the kingdom was indeed good news while for another it was anything but – it was horrible news.
Here’s my point. While we’d all like to identify ourselves with Robin and his band of noble thieves who are loyal to King Richard, we shouldn’t. If we’re up for being honest we should identify with the Sheriff and his followers. Why? Because we’re rebels. We’ve turned our back on the king, thumbed our nose at his authority, disobeyed his decrees, trampled his honor and glory underfoot and have declared ourselves to be his enemies (Rom 5:10, Col. 1:21). So, in what sense is the coming of the king and the establishment of the a just and righteous kingdom good news? It isn’t, not for unjust sinners!
The good news of the kingdom is that the king is coming and offering amnesty, forgiveness, mercy, grace, an inheritance and more to those who will accept the free gift (free to us, costly to him). He is welcoming rebels, beggars and vagabonds into his kingdom. Yes, he is establishing a kingdom, but apart from this grace and forgiveness that would not be good news. And this forgiveness comes from, and only from, the cross work of Jesus Christ where our sins are imputed to Jesus who suffers in our stead and his righteousness is imputed to us. The peculiar feature of this kingdom is that King Jesus ‘reigns from the cross’, as early patristic writers put it.
Coming at it from a different angel, the gospel is about what God has done in Jesus, not about what we do in following Jesus. The gospel is about indicatives (the mood of the verb that states facts); the gospel is not a new set of imperatives – it is not law. Their are plenty of imperatives that flow from the indicatives of the gospel, but the gospel is about what God has done, is doing, and will do – not how we act in light of that. The truth that God has redeemed us and that we have been transferred into the kingdom of light by the mighty act of God’s love in Jesus changes things, and we are called to live in light of those things (i.e. Galatians 2:14), but it is the truths themselves that constituted the gospel (see 1 Cor 15 for a great summary). A clarification from Horton might help. He writes, “It’s important t point out that law and gospel do not simply refer to the Ten Commandments and John 3:16, respectively. Everything in the Bible that reveals God’s moral expectations is law and everything in the Bible that reveals God’s saving purposes and acts is gospel.” (Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, pg. 109).
The only imperatives that we should connect with the gospel is ‘repent’ and ‘believe’ or ‘receive’. Thus, the three passages in the Bible that speak of ‘obeying the gospel’ are equivalent to saying ‘believe the gospel’ or ‘receive the gospel’. That is actually quite clear in one of the passages. Romans 10:16 says, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” (ESV). Even these imperatives should be acknowledged as impossible imperatives apart from the operations of God’s grace in our lives (by Calvinists and Wesleyan alike), which is something he does, not us.
So, for example, the sermon on the mount, which is the mandate for how to live in the kingdom, is really law, not gospel. However, trying to live out the kingdom to merit entrance into the kingdom wouldn’t work. Apart from God’s forgiveness through Christ, the call that comes to us in the Sermon on the Mount would be anything but good news, for who can live up to that standard (or the standard of following Jesus’ example). As J. Gresham Machen wrote, “Of what avail, without the redeeming acts of God, are all the lofty ideals of Psalmists and Prophets, all the teaching and example of Jesus? In themselves they can bring us nothing but despair. We Christians are not interested merely in what God commands, but also in what God did; in a triumphant indicative; our salvation depends squarely upon history; the Bible contains that history, and unless that history is true the authority of the Bible is gone and we who have put our trust in the Bible are without hope” (J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ).
So the coming kingdom of God is good news because Jesus died a substitutionary death on the cross for sinners like me and has transferred me, now a forgiven and holy saint, into his kingdom. With question, that will change how I live (by God’s continued sanctifying grace) – and that needs to be taught and preached also. But the kingdom mandate isn’t the gospel. Again Horton, “Not everything in God’s Word is gospel; there are a lot of exhortations, commands, and imperatives. They are to be followed. However, they are not gospel. Not everything we need is gospel. We also need to be directed…[but] confused with faith as the means of inheriting God’s gift, our ‘good works’ become the most offensive sin against God.” (Christless Christianity, pg. 109). Preach that to unregenerate souls and one of two things will happen: 1) they’ll be crushed with no hope, 2) in their pride (which we’re all guilty of) they’ll try to do it and become more self righteous than ever. Because we live in a positive culture where people are taught ‘you can do it’ (read with a Rob Schneider Cajun accent) the later is much more likely.
This may be the greatest flaw in the evangelical church today – it’s becoming largely therapeutic, moralistic, and self help oriented. You can see it in the pragmatic ‘five steps to’ approach of the seeker church, in the emerging churches call for kingdom living, and in the prosperity gospel movement. Again, Horton writes, “Osteen speaks of salvation entirely in terms of prosperity here and now, while McLaren speaks of salvation primarily in terms of peace and justice in the hear and now…Whether we define the gospel as God’s invitation to everyone ‘to turn from his or her current path and follow on a new way’ (with McLaren) or as ‘becoming a better you’ (with Osteen), we are confusing law and gospel, the command to follow Christ with the announcement from heaven that he has defeated death, condemnation, and sin’s tyranny, and will come again in power and glory, first to judge and then to make all things new.” (Christless Christianity, pg. 114).
I’ll discuss why I think this is important in our evaluation of the Manhattan Declaration (and why I wouldn’t sign it) in a subsequent post.