Theological Reflections on the NCF Core Values Statements
Why I believe it is important for us to talk about the Gospel as “the Gospel of the Kingdom”
As you read through the Core Value Statements we have proposed from NCF St Louis, you may be asking yourself why the phrase “gospel of the kingdom” and kingdom terminology is repeated so often. The simple answer is that this is the terminology Jesus and the Apostles use to describe the Gospel, and there is a critical reason for their use of this language. I believe at our point in church history, we need to re-discover and re-focus on the kingdom in our proclamation of the good news.
By contrast, we have developed a whole use of terminology around the proclamation of the Gospel that has slowly moved so far away from kingdom language that many pastors and preachers of the Word struggle to know what Jesus even meant by that phrase. In its place, we have ended up to often with a gospel that fits our agenda and understanding of what the good news is, and it is part of the reason we have churches that are not committed to reconciliation and justice. This is not to say that our current proclamation of the Gospel is all wrong. Any time we preach Christ, whether from pure motives or even from selfish ambition (Phil 1:17), and I would argue by extension, whether theologically well informed or not, Christ is preached and God is committed to saving any who turn to him. But somewhere in the process if people are not discipled into a better understanding of Christ and the message of the Gospel, the church can limp along with greatly impaired vision and understanding and even become susceptible to practicing horrendous injustice. This is precisely the reason we could have what appeared to be widespread revival in Rwanda in the 1980’s followed by genocide in 1994, where members of the same church were killing their neighbors in the very church buildings where they used to worship.
As evangelical and reformed churches we can quickly respond and conclude that these obviously were not true believers; that they did not understand the true gospel. Okay. But are we willing to look at the history of racism and the cultural values of personal wealth and prosperity in our own denominations and churches and make the same assessment? If lack of concern for the poor and the status quo acceptance of institutional and practical racism and division permeate the life of the American evangelical/reformed church, is it possible we could be open to the same charge as our Rwandan brothers of having missed some critical aspects of the Gospel in our own preaching?
So what is it that is so crucial about announcing the Gospel as “the Gospel of the kingdom” (Paul’s shorthand- “the gospel” Rom 1:16) instead of simply saying something like, “Jesus loves you, invites you to receive his forgiveness and gives you the gift of eternal life with him in heaven”? Who could argue with any of these statements? Of course, if they are properly understood, there is nothing wrong with any of them. The problem is that this way of presenting the Gospel leaves out foundational, crucial information about the nature of the gospel and in turn leaves the message open to being redirected to a self-centered, self-serving idea. When we announce the gospel as the good news of the kingdom, and invite men and women into that kingdom through faith in Christ, the very message itself moves us away from a perspective of God being centered on us and our purposes, to us being called to redirect (repent of) our thinking and become centered on God and his kingdom.
One way to describe the difference is to ask this question: Is the message of the Gospel primarily that we receive Christ as Savior, receive the forgiveness of our sins and get to go to heaven? Or is the message of the Gospel that God has loved this world and determined to redeem it by establishing his eternal, righteous kingdom and that through faith in Christ as the Risen Lord we are individually called to become members of his kingdom community, through repentance and faith, where the ultimate restoration of all things through the unfolding of God’s righteousness in this world has already begun?
If we are not careful, the first way of describing the gospel essentially makes the good news centered on “me” and the call to pursue the kingdom is an add-on that I may or may not be interested in responding to or, worst case scenario, gets redefined as something that simply enhances my cultural values. The calling and content of the “kingdom” can simplistically become increasing the number of souls that are saved. If the Gospel is fundamentally about me, then everything about the Christian life can easily slip into being measured by my concerns- my job, my family, my passions and desires for life (my cultural values)- and God’s faithfulness, in turn, can be measured by how well he is providing for me in each of those areas. But if the Gospel is essentially about the kingdom – the establishment of God’s glory and righteousness over the earth (Hab 2:14) which has begun in full measure with the coming of Jesus the Messiah and through him the defeat of sin and death because of the nature of his death and resurrection; His Lordship over the nations implemented by the anointing of the Spirit upon his people from among all those nations, who is given to establish justice on the earth and give decisions for the poor and broken of the earth through the church, his body (Isa 11, 61, Lk 4, Acts 2, 4, Col 1, Eph 2:10, 4:1-16); and that the culmination of this kingdom will come when he returns and all the kingdoms of the earth become the kingdom of Christ and of God (1 Cor 15) and the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness, are established for eternity (2 Pet 3:13); and then, that the invitation of the gospel is actually meant to be a response to the announcement of this good news and a turning to Christ as the only Messiah and Savior who can deliver us from our own sin and brokenness as well as the sin and brokenness of the world around us, through free forgiveness and the promise of the Spirit to put our lives in line with the purposes of his kingdom (Isa 61)- well then, everything changes.
The gospel is truly good news, not simply because I get to live forever in heaven, but because all the corruption, injustice and destructiveness of death that permeates the nations and the creation itself and even my own life, has been struck a death blow; and in its place God has begun the restoration of all things in Christ. Our whole lives-our heart, soul, mind and body as well as all our relationships and all our resources- are now finally given their ultimate focus and purpose and by the power of the Spirit we can live out this righteousness, restoration and reconciliation of God’s kingdom now, and fully embrace God’s kingdom agenda which includes the reconciliation of men from all nations and cultures to God and one another and then calls us together to especially focus on justice for the poor (Isa 61, Luke 4, 6), the orphan, the widow, the abused and the outcast. This calling, which is the one true calling of all God’s people, regardless of their personal vocation, is worth giving everything to and in fact, gladly costs us everything (Mt 13:45, 46). It will even cost us entering into the sufferings of Christ because the very nations we want to see redeemed are only set free from their own injustice by experiencing love and forgiveness in response to their evil (Lk 6:27-36). But all of this learning to embrace and endure injustice and even death in order to make the love of God known (Phil 3:10) will increasingly be seen as light and only very momentary troubles in comparison to the glory of the new heavens and the new earth that are ours in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 4:16-18). This is the difference between preaching the gospel of the kingdom and preaching a gospel “for me” that easily gets perverted to some form or other of self-centeredness.
So then, the issues of kingdom (Mt 2), righteousness (justice, mercy and humility- Mt 5:1-12; Luke 4:18-19), the Spirit’s power (Mt 12:28) and the practical meaning of the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the nations (Acts 2:34-36), as well as his fulfillment of God’s Covenant promises to Abraham (Gal 3:29), Moses (Heb 3:1-6)and David (Luke 1:31-33), all go hand-in-hand and all are all summarized in the announcement of this “gospel of the kingdom.” When we acknowledge Christ as Lord, we acknowledge his agenda over our lives and it is an agenda that includes reconciliation and justice at its very core.