When we understand that the Jesus-story is the long-awaited fulfillment of Israel’s story, salvation immediately takes on an ancient, prophetic, and shared dimension. We quickly realize that faith didn’t begin with us. This is the faith that was once for all delivered to us from those who have gone before us. (1) It is a faith that we have received. Christian faith is a received tradition.
Faith echoes back all the way to Eden and God’s promise to one day put all things right. (2) Faith then moves and meanders through Abraham and God’s promise of a seed through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. It flows through Moses, finding temporary resolution in Israel’s freedom from exile. It travels through David and the promise of an eternal King. And, it moves through the prophets, all the way to Jesus – the ultimate resolution of Israel’s story; a story for the whole world. It then travels through the apostles, through the centuries after them, to us.
Christianity is a deeply ancient faith. It is a received faith. We don’t get to make this faith up. We need to realize this, to learn from it, to understand it, honor it and follow it. As Paul wrote, “I passed on to you what was most important and what has also been passed on to me.” (3)
The Church, past, present and future, is centered in the person, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and is the realization of a long promise – fulfilled. “Through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” (4) The Church is that promise realized. The Church is Israel expanded. As N.T. Wright put it, “the four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel.” (5)
Reducing the Gospel story to a salvation formula
However, when we reduce the gospel story to salvation, and salvation to personal forgiveness, and personal forgiveness to a plan of salvation that focuses exclusively on getting people to make a decision, what Dallas Willard referred to in The Divine Conspiracy as the “gospel of sin management,” we essentially de-storify the gospel of Jesus and offer people what proves to be a serious mutation. (6)
When we couple this with our North American preoccupation and unhealthy interest in numbers, we end up trying to compel as many people as possible to make a decision, but only end up presenting one part of the equation.
And, our methods of persuasion ask people to make a decision, not for Christ alone, as the goal of the gospel, but to avoid hell and make it into heaven, setting people up for failure. Then we add up the ‘salvations’ as though numbers indicate success.
In such an environment, the gospel is often defined exclusively along the lines of personal salvation, of having one’s sins forgiven. It becomes a deeply private, unaffiliated, and individualistic experience that separates oneself from Israel’s story within which the story of Jesus is the culmination. In such a context, salvation is significantly redefined and is extracted from the ancient story of Israel and thus stripped of its focus, trajectory, and historical meaning. This will never do.
The gospel is, at its core, the fulfillment, resolution, completion, and climax of the ancient story of Israel. (7) A story rooted in the idea of the return of Israel’s God, of which Jesus is the embodiment. The gospel is tethered to this ancient promise and is proclaimed as Good News that something “has happened, because of which everything else will now be different.” (8)
And, the gospel comes to us as news within this larger, ancient backstory of which the Church is called to announce and enact in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a story that includes the summons to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord of all, and to live within his kingdom rule with the Sermon on the Mount as our ecclesial constitution.
The Gospel within community
Unfortunately, this story has often been reduced primarily to a message of having one’s sins forgiven, with little mention of the call to become a disciple, student, and apprentice of Jesus within the larger context of the Church, both locally and globally. However, by reducing the story of Jesus, a story that calls people to a life of devoted discipleship, to a system of salvation that only asks people to make a decision, we effectively short-circuit the power and design of the gospel. (9)
Personal salvation is then defined as personal spirituality and is essentially removed from the community of salvation; the community of the Church that defines, gives shape to, and forms those who have been captured by the Good News.
While the gospel has a personal dimension, there is also a deeply ancient component that calls us beyond a private, individualistic, and self-centered spirituality. Personal does not mean me, myself and I. Personal means me in the midst of.
Personal finds its fulfillment in the fellowship of the Church with and for the other. We do not complete ourselves. We find completion in Christ as we serve him and his church, at home and around the world. And, in one another as we serve Christ for the sake of the other.
This ancient faith is corporate, public, and collective in its shared wisdom, life, hope, grace, and love. What we have received, we pass on. We pass it on by repeating the traditions of our shared faith, of prayers, of readings, of reflections, of a Christ in, to and for the world. Faith is received wisdom and expression. We find it and it finds us.
The decision to follow Jesus happens within the context of a local church community who have been entrusted with God’s message and ministry of reconciliation, combined with the subsequent responsibility of maintaining an important role within the initiation-discipleship process.
The Catholic teaching, “All salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” is very accurate. The statement helps us to better understand and appreciate the enormous responsibility we have as Christ’s ambassadors (Catholic and Protestant) to communicate a message of invitation that is open to all, yet demonstrates the depth and seriousness of the summons.
The Church is not an army of one, but a body of people who live under the loving reign of God, with Jesus as its Messiah-King, who in the power of the Spirit seek to faithfully demonstrate to the world, in word and deed, what Jesus has done and is doing in building His new Kingdom dream – a dream for the whole world.
To remove this community-story element from the Gospel is to remove the essence of the Gospel itself; a Gospel that has always been rooted in the story of God and God’s people.
The Gospel embodied in baptism
Public confessions and declarations within the context of the community of Jesus are a part of what we do. And, no declaration can be more public and beautiful than the sacrament of baptism.
In baptism, we publicly declare to the Church and world – I am a follower of Jesus. I have been buried and raised with Him through this act. I am His apprentice and within the Church, both locally and globally, I will use whatever gift I have been graced with to serve the Church and world for the glory of God, for the extension of His kingdom, and for the good of all people.
Baptism is a public confession of faith. Baptism is a public confession that seals our decision to be a follower of Jesus and a member of His Church. Baptism is not optional.
In baptism, we tell the Church and world that we identify with Christ and will forever seek to participate with Him and His Church in His kingdom work. Baptism is not a private affair. As Scot McKnight wrote in his book, The King Jesus Gospel, “The public act of baptism is in and of itself a public declaration of the saving story of Jesus. If done right, baptism gospels the gospel in a public manner.” (10)
If I can think of one way to help ease the privatization and individualization that has captured the attention of the Christian Church, it is this – baptism. Rather than rely on our ineffective altar call invitations, maybe we need to recapture the beauty of baptism as the sign that demonstrates our understanding of the commitment required in serving Jesus and His Church.
The Gospel embodied in eucharist
What we need in order to maintain a healthy body, individually and collectively, is to feast on a steady diet of Jesus – his body in the bread and his blood in the wine.
In communion, followers of Jesus partake and share with one another the body and blood of Jesus so they can become the body and blood of Jesus in the world. Eucharist becomes the way in which we identify with and actively participate in the body and blood of Christ in, to, and for God’s good world.
We are also formed by the sacraments of prayer, baptism, as we delight in eating the bread of scripture, while serving one other in an attitude of humility.
When the sacraments of Jesus, served within community, by community, and for community, in the forms of prayer, scripture reading, communion, and baptism, become the food that feeds the church, then and only then will “we grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” (11)
The Gospel revisited
What we need to do is take a step back, or a few steps back, to gain a better perspective of the whole, ancient, meandering, promise-filled story of scripture and of the traditions spawned by that story. If not, we will never grasp the Gospel’s true intent and meaning. We will get lost in our own stories, interpretations, meanings, and lives.
We must learn and relearn to interact with the traditions of those who have gone before us. Those who spent time reflecting on what was passed on to them. And, we need to keep passing on the story to those who follow after us.
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel.” (12)
(1) Jude 1:3
(2) Genesis 3:15
(3) 1 Corinthians 15:3 (NLT)
(4) Genesis 22:18 (NLT)
(5) N.T. Wright. How God Became King. Harper One: New York, 2012. p. 65.
(6) Dallas Willard. The Divine Conspiracy: Recovering Our Hidden Life in God. Harper One: New York, 1997. p. 35.
(7) “The story of Jesus brings the story of Israel to its telos point, to its fulfillment, to its completion, or its resolution.” Scot McKnight. The King Jesus Gospel. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2011. p. 36.
(8) N.T. Wright. Simply Good News. Harper One: New York, 2015. p. 3.
(9) Scot McKnight. The King Jesus Gospel. p. 18.
(10) Ibid., p. 158.
(11) Ephesians 4:15 (NIV)
(12) 2 Timothy 2:8 (NIV)