In resuming our discussion of what the gospel is, I thought I’d record how my own mind has developed on the meaning of the gospel.
First, my childhood gospel was a personal forgiveness for eternity gospel. I was taught by parents and pastors and Sunday School teachers that I was a sinner, that I would go to hell for my sins, but that if I accepted Jesus into my heart, I’d be forgiven and would not go to hell but would go to heaven.
Second, my college gospel was a radical obedience and there aren’t many of us who are serious about it gospel. This sense of the gospel, which is not altogether unusual for college-age students or for those who were coming of age in faith in the 70s, came to me through three sources other than the Bible: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Ray Stedman’s Body Life, and Francis Schaeffer’s many books, including True Spirituality and The Mark of the Christian.
Third, my seminary and doctoral study gospel was more along the line of the inaugurated eschatology of the kingdom. I imbibed this with George Eldon Ladd’s New Testament Theology. While in seminary I discovered the Gospels, especially Matthew, so my thought patterns began to take on Kingdom thinking. What amazed me then, and still does so, is how few Christians in the evangelical fold think in terms of the Kingdom. Not that this is the only category, but (after all) it is how Jesus talked — and he must know something about what matters most.
The gospel of the kingdom transformed (for me) the gospel of my childhood and buttressed the gospel of my college experience. But, it was not put on a firmer foundation and for me the gospel had to be connected with the kingdom. But, I am persuaded that far too many kingdom thinkers spent far too much of their time thinking about the “time” of the kingdom and not enough about the substance of the kingdom. In other words, is the kingdom “now” or “later” or “both now and later”? instead of “what is the now that is already now and what difference does it make?” I had to grow into this perception.
Fourth, my teaching career gospel has seen another signficant shift in my understanding of kingdom. I was preoccupied with time too much, but I was aware that this was not enough. So, while at TEDS and especially at North Park, I began to work on the substance of the kingdom and how to define it: the old George Ladd definition (the dynamic presence of God) wasn’t enough for it smacked too much of the Liberal Protestant definition (a spiritual life) and not enough of the concrete thinking of the time of Jesus (earthy, structures, systemic evil, etc). So, I came to the conviction that kingdom meant the society in which the will of God is done, or the society in which the Jesus Creed transforms life. For me, it is impossible to define kingdom and not think “society.” This enabled me to make more sense of Paul: prior to this time kingdom and justification were seen as roughly synonymous expressions. That is, if kingdom is central to Jesus and justification to Paul, then they must be talking about the same thing. (This is how I think Ladd ultimately shakes out.) But, I became convinced that the operative parallel for kingdom in Paul’s own language was not justification but “ecclesia” (Church).
Last, the major change for me has been to personalize or relationalize the whole gospel and to anchor it in each of the redemptive events (Cross, Resurrection, Pentecost, Church): not in the older sense that it is personal for me (which it is) but that the entire substance is hyper-relational. The gospel comes out of a God who is hyper-relational within the persons of the Trinity (perichoresis), it is a manifestation of that personal God in the world (cosmic), and it is designed to transform or restore cracked Eikons so that they are drawn back into the perichoretic love of God so that they can love others for the good of the world. None of this is inconsistent with the evangelical gospel of forgiveness, but it is so much bigger and better and biblical.
I could go on … and will so tomorrow.