How Big a Gospel?

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Eschatology isn’t the only theological issue the faith and work movement struggles with, although it is probably the thorniest one. Another issue has been soteriology. How big is the gospel? But I think increased theological awareness in the church has removed a lot of what used to be real obstacles here. And the tensions that remain are, I think, actually tensions over eschatology at one remove.

Some in the movement have insisted that we are falling short if we don’t use salvific language to describe how Christians expand the kingdom through their daily work. For example, ending an unjust workplace practice or finding a new and better way to serve human needs is described as “redemptive.” Some language is more indirectly salvific, such as “pushing back on the fall” or “tearing off a corner of the darkness of the world.”

The concern here is to ensure that our daily work is grounded in the gospel, which requires a gospel big enough to ground it. Too many Christians have an overly individualized understanding of the gospel. As Dallas Willard and others have argued, when accounts of the gospel don’t immediately include our daily work and way of life (e.g. “believe in Jesus and you get to go to heaven when you die”), attempts to create an impact on our daily life through “downstream application” of the gospel have consistently fallen short in practice. The point is that God is not just saving individuals but reclaiming the whole creation order. Many draw the conclusion that we don’t just “live out” the gospel in our work, in the sense of carrying out downstream implications, but participate in the gospel in our work, in the sense that Jesus carries out his plan to reclaim the world through us.

This salvific language has been often resisted by those who have not yet grasped the enormity of God’s gospel intention. God is, in fact, reclaiming the whole world through Jesus, and that does, in fact, have implications for our daily work. Twenty years ago there was organized and self-conscious resistence to this “big gospel” simply as such. But I think an awareness that you can’t have the personal gospel without the cosmic gospel is slowly but surely making its way through the church. No doubt much remains to be done, but I think the momentum is in the right direction.

However, this salvific language is also resisted for more theologically serious reasons. And sometimes these serious theological concerns are not recognized as such, because those who have spent long years fighting against theological ignorance can begin to see any kind of resistence to their position as mere theological ignorance.

One point worth noting is that salvific language, if not used carefully, can effectively substitute our efficacy for that of Jesus. It is true that Jesus works redemptively through me as well as in me. But I do not work redemptively; Jesus works redemptively, even when he does it through me. That, however, is a caveat about how we use this language and not a real barrier to using it. The abuse does not abolish the use.

The more formidable objection is that the redemption of all creation is eschatological. The Romans 8 passage so beloved of the big-gospel faction is saturated with lament over the eschatological delay of the salvation of the cosmos. With regard to the present, Paul in Romans 8 actually emphasizes the absence of the future reality rather than its presence – the “not yet” over the “already.”

The personal gospel is unambiguously realized today, even if it is incompletely realized today. The cosmic gospel is realized today only ambiguously. There is a real inbreaking of the future reality at the cosmic level, but it is always a mixed and tentative inbreaking, in a way that is simply not the case for the personal gospel.

That is why the New Testament says so much about the continuing cosmic power of demons and the world’s opposition to the church. It is in the new earth that the glory of the nations is brought into the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21. And the new Jerusalem is not made by our work; it comes down from heaven.

Even if we as individuals, and as a church, are not yet perfected and glorified in the present, we are made holy in the present. To borrow David Wells’ helpful – because rhyming! – language, being made holy is not just a matter of condition (progressive sanctification) but also a matter of position. We are set apart to the Lord, not progressively but all at once, when we repent and believe. That is what repenting and believing means.

The world in which we do our daily work has not yet been made holy, has not yet been set apart to the Lord. And we do not work in isolation from our neighbors. Our work is not only shaped but actually constituted by the social situation in which we do it. You can’t work in the world as if the world were the church.

Of course, those who are concerned to champion a big gospel can reply that even the ambiguous inbreaking of the cosmic future should have a place in our theology, and of course that’s right. That’s why I don’t go so far as to say it’s wrong to use salvific language to describe our daily work. But I myself choose not to use it, and I think those who do would be well advised to be proactive in acknowledging that while the “already” dominates at the personal level, the “not yet” dominates at the cosmic level.

But those of us who emphasize eschatological discontinuity should praise the big-gospelers for having spent two generations fighting to affirm the cosmic gospel against popular theological ignorance, and add as much of our own weight to that cause as we can.

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