My experience is that these individual and corporate aspects of the gospel do not live in easy harmony with one another in our preaching and church bodies. In fact, many communicators today deliberately pit them against each other. (Tim Keller, The Gospel in All its Forms)
I got an email from a friend this morning. He was trying to challenge me to consider the wider implications of the cross. It’s not just about penal substitution and personal salvation; it’s also a kingdom gospel of justice as Scot McKnight put it recently.
I think my friend may have been surprised that I agree, probably because of recent posts like this and this. It’s true that I’ve been frustrated that some seem to emphasize the social justice side of the gospel, sometimes almost excluding atonement for personal sin. But I’m also frustrated by the other side. As Carl Henry wrote in 1947:
Why must the church be on the wrong side of every major social issue? If the Bible-believing Christian is on the wrong side of social problems such as war, race, class, labor, liquor, imperialism, etc., it is time to get over the fence to the right side. The church needs a progressive Fundamentalism with a social message….There is no room for a gospel that is indifferent to the needs of the total man nor of the global man.
Yes, that may be the only time you will ever see the words “progressive” and “Fundamentalism” used together. The fact that we laugh may be an indication that his vision has never yet been realized. Imagine evangelicals who are known for proclaiming both a gospel of forgiveness of sins and a gospel of good news of justice for the world.
A Case Study in Ephesians
I’ve really enjoyed seeing this as I’ve studied Ephesians lately.
On one hand, you can’t mistake the gospel as what Jesus has done to rescue us from God’s judgment for sin. This is the gospel that is sometimes missed by those who preach only the social dimensions.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. (Ephesians 1:7-8)
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5)
On the other hand, without any sense of conflict, you have the wider implications of the gospel. This is the gospel that is sometimes missed by those who preach only about forgiveness from personal sin.
For instance, God has purposed “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). He’s reunifying everything in life that has been torn apart by sin and injustice.
You could write a book about the implications of this staggering verse:
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:22-23)
There are social dimensions to the cross:
His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Ephesians 2:15-16)
The social dimensions are so huge that as they’re lived out in the church, it puts the spiritual forces on notice that God is accomplishing his purpose of setting things right:
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10-11)
Ephesians is about God bringing reconciliation to all the universe: with himself, with each other, everything – all of life and the universe – being brought back into the way it should be, under Christ.
Conclusion: The gospel in Ephesians deals with personal sin. But it also breaks down racial and social barriers, brings people into community who were former enemies, has put all areas of life under his rule for the church! And everything that was torn apart by sin is now being brought back into unity under Christ.
The challenge for this generation is to preach not one but both of these forms of the gospel. As Tim Keller writes:
No one form of the gospel gives all the various aspects of the full gospel the same emphasis. If, then, you only preach one form, you are in great danger of giving your people an unbalanced diet of gospel-truth. What is the alternative? Don’t preach just one gospel form. That’s not true to the various texts of the Bible anyway. If you are preaching expositionally, different passages will convey different forms of the one gospel. Preach different texts and your people will hear all the points.
It’s biblical. It corrects the mistakes of both the conservative and emerging camps. And it’s classic evangelicalism. “The redemptive message has implications for all of life; a truncated life results from a truncated message,” wrote Carl Henry, the “father of modern fundamentalism.” We need to take all of the gospel and apply it to all of life.