One of the hardest, yet most important, jobs that I have as a biblical studies teacher is to get my students to reframe their understanding of the Gospel around the Gospels. In particular, many of my students come to me only familiar with a “get-out-of-hell-free” version of the Gospel and struggle to make sense of Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God and the evangelistic sermons in Acts. Here is a version of a handout that I pass out yearly in order to try and get my students to see the profound differences between the truncated “heaven and hell gospel” and a more robust “kingdom of God” gospel.
The Heaven & Hell Gospel
1) Christianity is primarily about the invitation to experience eternal life after death
2) Christianity is primarily focused on escaping to the spiritual world (heaven) where we will experience eternal life as disembodied spirits
3) Our actions in this life are fairly inconsequential to our future of eternal life, so long as we check off the appropriate boxes to “accept Jesus” [requirements are different in each tradition]
The Kingdom of God Gospel
1) Christianity is primarily about the invitation to experience eternal live [enter into the Kingdom] now, during this life
2) Christianity is primarily focused on the redemption of this world (earth) and God’s will being accomplished with the end result of a New Heavens and Earth & a physical resurrection of the dead
3) Our actions in this life are extremely important to whether we enjoy the gift of God’s eternal life now (and if we aren’t in the Kingdom now, we might question whether anything will magically change after we die)
The “Heaven & Hell Gospel” is centered around (eternal) life AFTER death.
The “Kingdom of God Gospel” is centered around (eternal) life BEFORE death (which will continue on even after death).
I recently finished reading a fantastic book – Jeff McSwain’s Movements of Grace: The Dynamic Christo-Realism of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrances.
You may remember McSwain from the evangelical news cycle a few years ago. He was fired from Young Life in late 2007 for his divergent views on the nature of evangelism and the gospel (you can read his account here).
I found the book to be thoughtful and informative (an excellent summary of the book can be found over at Kerry’s Loft). I’ve become more acquainted with Patristic theology over the last few months and I see many similarities between McSwain’s theology (and the tradition he is drawing from) and that of the Fathers. Thus, I really appreciated a contemporary academic (yet pastoral and practical) account of the Gospel which takes seriously the Trinity, the Incarnation, theosis, and the overwhelming love of God (in many ways his work reminds me of Doug Campbell’s theological vision). Here are two quotes which I think capture his understanding of the nature of evangelism and the importance of a proper theological appreciation of ontology:
“It is the concept of evangelical repentance, derived from Calvin, that helps us to move past potential gnostic or dualist tendencies. The connection of this concept to Barth’s teaching that humanity must hear God’s ‘No’ to sin inside God’s ‘Yes’ to humanity is hard to miss. For in the statement “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 RSV), spoken to those immediately present and to all of us whose sins put Christ on the cross, we can hear God’s indictment against our sinfulness in the context of his overall affirmation of us. In order to avoid a conditional gospel, the Torrances insist with Calvin and Barth that we must preach about sin only as the implicit back side of a positive statement. To do otherwise is to risk making grace the exception to the rule – an exception applicable to us only when certain conditions are met – at which point grace is no longer grace!” (3)
“The key to keeping together the person and work of Christ, his incarnation and atonement, is what the Torrances call the ‘vicarious humanity of Christ.’ Understanding the critical place of the vicarious humanity of Christ in theological persuasion entails an appreciation of ontology, or the nature of being. By becoming a human being, Christ bound up our being inextricably with his. When we discount this internal union that Christ established with each one of us via the incarnation, we empty the incarnation of soteriological significance and call men and women to respond from a center in themselves, external to Christ, instead of from within the incarnational union established by Christ in the Spirit. A loss of ontological perspective in evangelism has led to an undue amount of emphasis on the acts of Christ as apart from his being, and in turn to an emphasis on acts of subjective individual response apart from our being as linked with Christ’s. This kind of ‘evangelism’ blurs the vicarious humanity of Christ and ‘itself needs to be evangelized’, exclaims T.F. Torrance.” (6-7)
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Bonus: A video recording of a sermon from McSwain: Jesus is the Gospel.