Many people think of the gospel as the answer to the question, “How can I be saved?” Much time and energy is spent trying to bring people to a place of asking this question so that the gospel answer can be supplied. Evangelism is heavily emphasized in circles where this sort of gospel message is popular, and would-be evangelists are trained to walk people through the “Four spiritual laws” or the “Bridge diagram” in order to explain this gospel.
All of this is based on, if error is too strong a word, certainly a misunderstanding and mis-emphasis of the gospel. The gospel is not the answer to the question of “What must I do to be saved?” or even “Where will I go when I die?” The gospel is not about getting my sins forgiven. The gospel is not about being able to “go to heaven.” This is, of course, no particular person’s fault. There is no grand conspiracy to misunderstand the gospel. It is based, rather, on a tradition of Christianity that runs back perhaps a hundred years. Its origins are rooted in the Great Awakenings, Brethrenism, and the “Evangelical” movement, all of which stemmed from the highly individualized understanding of the gospel and the Scriptures of the Baptistic movement in American theology during the 1800s.
The gospel is actually a story. It is a story that starts in Genesis and moves to its culmination in the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. The gospel announces the beginning of the Kingdom of God, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the priestly people, and the formation of the Church – all of this done in fulfillment of the story of Israel as God’s people. That is, essentially, the gospel. Christ has come and set up the Kingdom – no other gods are to be before him. Christ has come and been crowned King – no other Kings are above Him. Christ has come and formed the Church, set up a priestly people who rule with Him in the heavenly places, and have established outposts all throughout the world – churches – which are foretastes of this Kingdom. Little pockets of heaven on earth. Nobody voted for this, nobody really asked for it. But it happened. There is a new ruler in the world, and all the earth is summoned to pay homage to Him and swear fealty.
The use of the word “saved” is also problematic, if we are going to take it in the sense of “going to heaven when we die.” It is clear that the Old Testament’s understanding of salvation is this-worldly. It is deliverance from enemies, escape from oppression, a great work of God to break the bonds that imprison His people, and an act of leading them out into freedom. Jesus’ use of the terms “saved” and “salvation” are precisely the same. The deliverance wrought is from the powers of Satan and of sin and death, but it also means deliverance in a physical way. Women are freed from the oppression of abuse and patronization. Men are freed from their insecurities and fears and aggressions. Whole communities are freed from oppressive powers and abusive environments. The gospel is about this world. When we announce it, the world should have to sit up and listen. An Anglican priest made the point well: “Wherever St. Paul preached, he was beaten and stoned and arrested. Wherever I preach, I get served tea.”
When the Scriptures tell us that Christians are ambassadors of this reconciliation, it means that we are those who rush out ahead of the King’s party, messengers running out to all the cities and towns announcing the great change of Kingship has come. Ceasar is not lord, Jesus is. The President is not lord, Jesus is, and this has consequences for how communities and cultures live, not just individuals.
The response to this announcement is, however, the same as the individualized and truncated version alluded to above. “How do I get in on this?” That should be the response of people when they hear the announcement of Christ’s enthronement.
But our explanations must match that of Scripture. Scripture does not say, “Pray the sinner’s prayer,” or even “Accept Jesus into your heart.” No, it says, “repent and be baptized, and join a church community.” Very different indeed. We have a lot of work to do.