A Holistic Gospel

3 10 2007

All (or most) of us engaged with the emergent conversation are pretty much on the same page when it comes to the convert’em and drop’em mentality. That is, we are weary of those who want to focus on salvation as merely a means to the end of getting into heaven/escaping Hell. Clearly, the New Testament witness stresses much more when it comes to salvation. I think that most people who read this blog – even those of a more conservative persuasion – can fully agree with me on this. Salvation is both already and not yet. It is both future-oriented and present tense. As Paul says, we must continually work out our salvation, i.e., we can’t just say a prayer and be done with it.

Our interim pastor, Dr. Joe Loughlin touched on this topic last Sunday morning, and he said it well. One of the biggest failures of the last few decades in the evangelical tradition has been the overemphasis of salvation as being “salvation from Hell.” Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with salvation from Hell, but salvation from Hell is merely one of the many, many facets of the bigger picture of salvation that we find in the New Testament, let alone the Old Testament. Again, I am quite sure that everyone who reads this blog would agree with this argument.

Now, we in the new generation of Christianity in America have to learn from this mistake. I am convinced, that aside from a few dying circles, we are currently getting over this stage in our history. We are beginning to realize that Christianity, that salvation means nothing apart from discipleship. Christianity means nothing without actually following Jesus. We can see this trend from a growing influx of books over the past few years emphasizing discipleship, one of the most prominent being Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission.

What I have to be careful of, though, is to stay away from the pendulum swing mentality. It’s so easy for me to see the harm that has been done in the church because of an unhealthy over-emphasis on the future kingdom of God – Heaven. Clearly, we have seen that the church has misled so many to believe that they can say the sinner’s prayer and receive their fire-insurance without any form of discipleship. We cannot as a church, though, completely abandon our belief in the eschatological kingdom (final, last things, “end times” – not in the Left Behind sense). If we abandon such belief, we lose our future-oriented hope in the gospel.

I must confess, it has been easy for me to turn from the fundamentalist emphasis on salvation from Hell, and turn to an over-emphasis on the Kingdom of God as here and now.

I have come to realize that we must live in the tension between the already and not yet. Not merely because the tension between the already and not yet is doctrinally sound. But, because the tension between the already and not yet keeps our practice of Christianity in a healthy balance.

Dr Joe said it well: Anytime we over-emphasize anything, we risk endangering the message of the gospel. We should learn this from our recent mistake of over-emphasizing salvation from Hell.

On the other side of the coin, if we look back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we can learn from the mistakes of classical liberalism. Friedrich Schleiermacher was a leader in this movement who over-emphasized the kingdom as here and now, and he believed that humankind could bring about God’s kingdom on earth. This manifested itself in Socialism, and long story short – World War I happened. Moral of the story: neither an unhealthy focus on the here and now, nor an unhealthy focus on the not yet is helpful.

We must live in the tension, painful as it may be.

We must realize that we as humans are still humans. We cannot, aside from an act of God, bring about God’s kingdom on earth. Likewise, we cannot take an escapist attitude and simply ‘wait for Heaven.’

A healthy tension between already and not yet is important for Christian life and practice. To be sure, salvation effects our lives to the very core at this moment in time. It changes us now and forevermore. And to be sure, because of our salvation, we have a hope that God himself will redeem all things. Thus, we have a hope that we can work for change and that God is active in history. We also have a hope that someday all will be made right, and there will be no more tears, or crying, or pain.

May we live in the tension. May we live with hope for the future. May we live with conviction in the now. May we follow the Christ who is peace and justice and salvation!

I apologize for the over-use of italics.




One response

3 10 2007

Well put! I realized I had gone too far toward the “already” and away from the “not-yet” when, in an interview with a denominational board preparing me for ordination, it was brought to my attention than my answer to a question about eternal life did not include mention of life after death.

I haven’t come back very far, though. I make it clear whenever I talk about eternal life that life after death is part of the package. Since it wasn’t specifically mentioned in Jesus’ defining of eternal life (John 17:3), however, I still don’t stress it.

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