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3.08.2006 

the gospel

Growing up in a solidly evangelical Christian home, I always heard that the "gospel" that was talked about in the New Testament was something like "the good news that Jesus died on the cross for my sins." One of the largest shifts in my thinking since coming to seminary has been to realize that while my childhood definition might be the way that the "gospel" is defined in American evangelicalism, and is an essential part of the biblical definition, the way the New Testament talks about the gospel is actually more comprehensive than that.

There are a lot of perspectives out there on the New Perspective on Paul. I'm not sure what to think about the "movement" myself, and certainly don't have enough knowledge or training to come to any kind of definitive idea about it. I imagine that like most new biblical/theological ideas there are probably both positives and negatives, insights to learn from and theories to avoid. All that said, I have learned a great deal from many of the emphases of N. T. Wright, both from reading his book "Jesus and the Victory of God" for a class at Covenant, as well as from various articles that he's written.

As I've thought through these issues regarding the gospel and how its definition might be different from the idea I grew up with, one of the best essays I've read on the subject has been Wright's Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire. Wright's thesis is essentially that Paul's gospel is "the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel's Messiah and the world's Lord" and that this gospel stands in direct opposition to Caesar's empire. While at first glance, this gospel might sound pretty similiar to my earlier definition, there are actually some pretty significant differences, as well as many different implications.

One major implication of Wright's redefinition of the gospel (and of course, it's not just Wright that is saying this) is that it moves the focus from the individual sinner being saved to the entire world being redeemed--an idea that impacts my life in many ways.

To take one small example, this refocusing breaks down the secular/sacred divide that plagues the lives of many Christians. If Jesus is "simply" the one who saves me from my sins, then it becomes debatable, in practice if not in theory, how much impact his salvation ought to have on the daily actions of my life. Obviously I ought to live a life of thankfulness, a life that is centered around acknowledging my dependence upon and need for him. But in practice, it's easy to see Jesus as the one who pays for my sins and opens the doors of heaven to me and yet does not have much to say about how I live. If the his law impacts my life at all, it's often in a moralistic way that merely serves to differintiate me from the surrounding world. Of course, I make this critique not as a outsider imagining the way evangelicals behave, but as one who lived this way for a long time. I should also add that I am not ashamed in the least of the way in which I grew but believing in Jesus. I both knew and loved him. I'm sure that I knew no less about theology then than I do now.

But if the "gospel" is the summons and announcement that the resurrected Jesus is the king of the world and lord of all things, then this sacred/secular divide totally breaks down. Jesus is lord of the world in precisely the same way that he is lord of my heart. My salvation is not just being cleansed from my sins, but it is demonstrated in my being part of a world that is being restored and transformed, a membership in the new humanity of the king who is ruling all things with wisdom and power. Obviously Jesus atoning on the cross for my sins is a part of this gospel, even an essential part, but it is never its comprehensive definition.

Ideas do matter, and the way that we define the gospel of Jesus Christ will inevitably impact the way we live as those who are baptized in his name. And this, I am becoming more and more convinced, is the heart of the gospel, that is, the good news that Christians are to announce to the world--that the risen Jesus is both Lord and Christ. In short, that Jesus is king, and the whole earth belongs to him.

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