Demythologizing the Gospel

by Rance Darity

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18,19).

Judged by the standards of traditional teaching, we might wonder what these socially-laden terms have to do with preaching the gospel. Doesn’t the gospel simply deal with what we hear in church about going to heaven, possessing assurance, and overcoming personal sin? Isn’t there a world of difference between the “real” gospel believed by Christians and mere social concern for injustice?

Poverty, oppression, and captivity are most often interpreted by conservative Christians in spiritual terms only, describing an inward bondage to sin and corruption. On the other hand, liberal Christians have a reputation for believing in a social gospel that plays down spiritual conversion and interprets Jesus in predominately naturalistic terms. But are either of these opposite approaches truly biblical? Are we permitted to divide the social and spiritual sides of human existence and limit the concern of the gospel to one dimension only? Is the gospel spiritual, or is it social, or is it holistic?

To ask such questions may be too uncomfortable for some Christians. To reexamine such basic issues may seem unnecessary and even threatening. It is even likely that some will resist the challenge to think through familiar paradigms and potentially discover just how comprehensive the gospel really is. Nevertheless, serious Christians ought to resist any traditional boundaries and rediscover the gospel in its biblical wholeness.

In the following discussion, the case is made for a unified gospel that encompasses the spiritual as well as the social. We maintain that to believe in Jesus is more than a matter of getting into heaven. In fact, we will challenge this common portrayal of the gospel as being fundamentally flawed and mythical. However, our ultimate goal is to be fully biblical and, if need be, to disabuse our minds of a conflicted gospel that leads to the tragic loss of spiritual power, on the one hand, or the disastrous depletion of compassionate concern for the world’s poor and oppressed, on the other.

Myths of Optional Concern

Myth # 1: The central concern of the Christian faith is the salvation of individuals from eternal torment. The sinner who simply “accepts Christ” is instantly assured of a place in heaven. This concern for the saving of a person’s soul is the essence of the church’s missionary mandate. Social justice and the improvement of society are temporal matters that are important by virtue of our love for mankind; however, they are secondary issues and concerns, peripheral to the gospel.

Fact: The traditional gospel has remodeled the concrete and earthly reality of God’s plan for man into the one-dimensional world of the spirit. The church needs to recover the essential historic nature of the biblical message and to that extent surmount the over-spiritualization of its message.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the unifying theme of the New Testament and the foundation of the Christian faith. Jesus announced a gospel of the kingdom, and the early church proclaimed Jesus as the Savior who died for sinners and was raised to rule as Lord at God’s right hand. The thematic center of this gospel does not revolve around the limited concern to save men’s souls and transport them to heaven.

Rather than despising the world and looking for redemption elsewhere, Christians are to pray for the arrival of God’s kingdom and the flourishing of His will on earth as it is in heaven. Believers are given a heavenly calling for an earthly task. They are to seek those things which are above, not as far-off contemplations, but as down-to-earth necessities for flesh-and-blood existence.

From the start, in the preaching of Jesus, the various expectations of salvation are concentrated into a single major focus: the dramatic entrance of the “kingdom of God” into the dark shadows of human history. Christian salvation derives its source and hope from the restoration of all things under the lordship of Christ. The whole of creation will, at Christ’s return, partake of the glorious liberty awaiting the children of God.

In his cross and resurrection, Christ established shalom/peace, reconciling mankind to God and to one another. This reconciling work begins in the church and foreshadows the wholeness of salvation in the age to come. Placed in the setting of the present darkness, a new community of believers shines forth as light, models the future and engenders improved social change in the present. Through its endurance and faithful service, it fills up the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the world.

Thus, the gospel of the kingdom focuses holistically upon man’s plight, demanding both spiritual repentance and social renewal. The mistake of removing the substance of the kingdom from the earth to the ethereal space of heavenly dwellings is to disengage the conscience of the church from vital concerns of man’s existence and limit the lordship of Christ to an inward religious experience.

Matt. 5:14-16; 6:10-12; Luke 4:43; Acts 2:22-36; Rom. 8:18-23; 2 Cor. 5:17-19; Eph. 1:10; 2:14-18; Phil. 2:15; Col. 1:19,24; Jas. 3:17-18.

Myth # 2: The spiritual well-being of man is the premier concern of the gospel, and it is possible to water down the message if Christians expend too much effort in causes of social justice and economic development. A social gospel would diminish the true witness of the church. Christians can and do play a significant role of social up-building in the daily rounds of family, work and cultural involvement, but the church must keep to its task of preaching the gospel. Its wealth should be invested primarily in its own maintenance and propagation, supporting approved clergy, missionaries, and church personnel. Support of the poor and needy, relief of the suffering, and good works are legitimate concerns but purely secondary in nature.

Fact: To reduce the role of the church to religious enterprises, altar calls, and revivals is to abandon the dynamic power of the kingdom of God. Rather than restrict the primary agenda to the saving of souls, Christ’s followers are to teach and instruct others in the full counsel of God. The ministry of evangelism serves the goal of God in the furtherance of the kingdom, making disciples of all nations and teaching them to observe all that Christ commands. All of life is to be conformed to Christ and his word.

Individuals are challenged to repentance and faith in Christ, but conversion was never divorced from ethical obligations and practical concerns in the broader world. Rather than awaiting escape to another world, they are sent abroad on the earth – hearts, hands, and minds intent on doing good works and faithfully serving in the name of Christ.

The restoration of economic justice was a major component in the jubilee agenda of Christ and the kingdom. He preached good news to the poor and deprived. The early church brought its material resources to bear upon the relief of the poor and needy, especially those in her midst. Ministering workers were passionately supported in their love for Christ. The Bible often reports the zeal of caring and sharing so that each received according to his need, and each gives according to his ability. The economics of greed and accumulation were viewed as fatal hindrances to obeying the gospel.

Matt. 28:19,20; Mark 9:41; Luke 4:18,19; Acts 2:44,45; 4:32-37; Acts 20:25,27; Rom. 12:1,2; 2Cor. 8,9.

The Myth of Evangelical Dualism

Myth # 3: Since man’s body is only physical and destined to perish, the soul of man is the primary concern of the gospel. At death, the soul of the Christian leaves the body and is transported to heaven to await the resurrection of the body. In contrast, the soul of the non-Christian is destined for eternal torment in hellfire. Missions and evangelism must therefore focus superior attention on getting people “saved.” Education, physical healing, social justice and peacemaking are merely means to preserve the world before the final day of destroying judgment.

Fact: Though the post-apostolic church in large measure succumbed to Hellenistic abstractions and learned to place an emphasis on the supposed immortality of man’s soul and original corruption, it could only do so by abandoning the earthly/historical nature of the biblical message.

The Abrahamic promise to bless all nations through the call of Israel and its ultimate fulfillment in Christ loses its most essential elements when Christian hope is reduced to a going-to-heaven eschatology. The shift from resurrection faith to post-mortem immortality severely deflates the meaning of the gospel by driving a wedge between creation and redemption.

The popular and traditional interpretation of the gospel often breeds an other-worldly detachment from human evil and suffering which the biblical gospel does not allow. At the very core of Christ’s message was the same concern for mercy, justice, and liberation as demanded by the Hebrewprophets. His powerful teaching and mighty miracles were not isolated instances of occasional compassion, but the signs and presence of the kingdom of God in action. The time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God was at hand. A new age was breaking into the old and fresh hopes and dreams would be realized in tomorrow’s world. Old regimes would one day come to an end – the proud would be scattered, the mighty put down from their thrones and the rich sent away hungry – and a complete social reversal would occur. The meek would inherit the earth, the poor would be blessed,the merciful would obtain mercy.

All of this is very different from the familiar themes inherited from the past, where we are told to be sorry for our sins and accept Christ as our own personal individual Savior. This limited concern for our own destiny does not reach to the core of biblical mission and kingdom evangelism. True conversion is more than a dress rehearsal for heaven that refuses to go beyond the mere requirements of pietistic customs. It is more than the mere transfer from unchurched to churched, from irreligious to religious, from disgraceful to respectable.

Gen. 12:2,3; Isa. 10:1,2; 56:1; 61:8; Matt. 5:3-7; 9:13,16,17; 12:7; 23:23; Mark 1:15; Luke 1:51-53; 11:20; Acts 4:21; Rom. 4:13; 1 Cor. 15; Rev. 21.

Myths of Decisional Evangelism

Myth # 4: The Bible contains a “simple plan of salvation” for the evangelization of sinners. Evangelism is based on one’s ability to share the steps to Christ. Deciding for Christ and praying a sinner’s prayer are the only assurance one needs of his conversion to God.

Fact: Though the practice of presenting the gospel in the manner of a formula or plan has the endorsement of traditional “evangelical theology” and though many have been won to Christ and have found a point of entry into the kingdom of God through such “soul-winning” approaches, the practice is nevertheless a truncated version of the apostolic preaching reported in the New Testament. Attempts to confine the good news along the narrow lines of decision-making often create one more obstacle to true repentance and saving faith.

Depending upon the time, place and audience, the proclamation of Christ was the announcement of an arriving kingdom, the promise of forgiveness and eternal life, or a reign of justice and peace. Faith, repentance, conversion, obedience, cross-bearing, self-denial, the forsaking of all, discipleship, baptism, and service of God and man are just a few of the central responses alternately demanded by the gospel. In short, the biblical gospel invades the totality of human life including the personal, social, economic, religious and secular.

“Soul-winning evangelism” reduces the gospel to individualistic, existential terms and leaves unchallenged the status quo of worldly principalities and powers. Kingdom evangelism announces the reign of God in such a way that conversion is not merely the decision to simply believe, with little or no reflection or resolution. On the contrary, real conversion is the initiation of the whole of a person’s life into the service of the kingdom.

By God’s grace, sinners are regenerated by God’s Spirit and transformed in the new community. They discover a new life in Christ, no longer based on selfish ambition. As a little flock gathered by the Shepherd, they are given a kingdom which cannot fail or be extinguished by the forces of hell. Joined together by one Lord, one Spirit and one baptism, they share a common life, closely comparable to a body, a family, a nation, a city, etc. Agape/love must referee their shared joys and sorrows. Salvation is a community existence, not an isolated religious experience.

Matt. 12:18,46-50; 16:18; 26:28; 28:19; Mark 1:15; 8:34-9:1; 16:16; Luke 6:24; 12:22-34; 14:26-35; 18:7,8; 19:8,9; John 3:16; 10:1-18; Rom. 6:4; 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:12-31; 13; Gal. 6:10; Eph. 4:4-6; Tit. 2:11-14; Heb. 2:11,12; 2 Pet. 2:5; Rev. 1:6.

Myth # 5: The gospel from Genesis to Revelation revolves around the issue of law and grace. The great question facing mankind is how man, the sinner, can find a gracious God. The task of evangelism is mainly to clarify the doctrine of justification by faith. Further, the proper confession of this doctrine is the issue by which the church stands or falls.

Fact: The extremely difficult and complex resolution to how uncircumcised Gentiles could be accepted into one body with circumcised Jews was an issue that occupied the considered attention of the early church. Paul, as a Jew and yet apostle to the Gentiles, was especially in the forefront of dealing with this enormous obstacle to unity in the body of Christ. The law/grace, faith/works, circumcision/uncircumcision matters belonged entirely in this religious context.

Employing the end-time status of the messianic mission of Jesus, Paul argued from the law and prophets for the essential truth of the universality of the gospel. All men and women, Jew and Gentile alike are in need of salvation, equal in their participation in the grace of God, and full partners in the unified community.

Circumcision and the law add nothing to the efficacy of God’s promise to save in Christ all whobelieve. Justification by faith is the truth that allows us to see one another as brothers and sisters, regardless of cultural/religious differences. We are to receive and eat with all whom Christ has received. We deny the truth of the gospel when we make any extraneous laws, customs or ethnic concerns prerequisites to salvation or conditions of fellowship.

In much of the history of Christianity, the theme of justification by faith has been anachronistically contorted in another direction. Abstracted from its original context, it has acquired a new meaning, defining who is and who is not “saved” based on agreement with confessional orthodoxy. As a result, differing convictions have hardened into a permanent split in the body of Christ, contradicting the original intention and goal of the gospel of peace.

As a commanding canon of interpretation, the issue has cast a long shadow over the entire Bible and obscured the otherwise plain terms of the gospel. If “justification by faith” was the indispensable issue to explicate in the gospel witness, then it was conspicuously absent in the preaching of Jesus and carelessly disregarded by the majority of evangelistic appeals in Scripture.

Acts 15:1-35; Rom. 1-4; 14:1-15:22; Galatians 1-6; Eph. 2:11-3:12; Phil. 3:1-11.

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