April 10, 2020

iMonk Classic: Too Much Heaven? (part 3)

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer

Today we conclude our review of Michael Spencer’s three-part series, originally posted in April, 2008.

I think it’s telling that the two most prolific evangelism programs in evangelicalism both approach their audience with questions that Jesus never used.

  • “Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?”
  • “If you were to die tonight, and God were to asked you, why should I let you into my heaven, what would be your answer?”

According to Mark, Jesus did not approach his world with a question at all, but with a proclamation.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)

His first public sermon was much the same: a proclamation of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)

Evangelicalism is a religion of decisions and transactions. Jesus proclaims the arrival of the reign of God. There are decisions to be made, but reducing the Gospel to a decision to accept “God’s plan for my life” or giving the right answer to the question of how to go to heaven seems to have moved well past what Jesus was doing in his earthly ministry.

The decisions most often presented to Jesus’ hearers were: (1) the decision to recognize the reality of the Kingdom of God, and (2) the decision to recognize Jesus as the Messiah who is bringing that Kingdom into the world.

As useful as John 3:16 is as a summary of the Gospel, it is not an entirely useful summary of Jesus as we meet him in the synoptic Gospels. “Eternal life” is the life of God available in the present, It is John’s version of saying “The Kingdom of God is upon you.”

In passages where Jesus seems to be inviting “decision,” he is in reality inviting a reordering of life based on recognition of the Kingdom of God and recognizing the Messiah as God with us. N.T. Wright has rightly pointed out that this is a proclamation telling us about a whole new world, and our response to it truly amounts to entering or refusing a “new creation” that is “born again” through Jesus.

Where is heaven in this? Certainly not absent, but even more certainly not central or prominent. Jesus invites sinners to believe they are forgiven. He invites all persons into a Kingdom of grace and into the missio dei. The Kingdom of God will eventual overturn all the fallen, pretentious kingdoms of men. “Heaven” is the reign of God seen from the Godward side, and we pray that it will come on earth as God answers the prayer that his will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Inviting people to reserve a place in heaven is shortchanging the Gospel, and creates the problem of justifying the demands of the Kingdom of God in the interim. In the Great Commission, Jesus calls us to evangelism that invites persons to become disciples, obeying all that he commanded. This is not a second level of “fine print.” It is the Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus the Messiah as they are to be presented to the world.

The most important question for many of us is how to place the cross of Jesus in the context of the entire offer of the Kingdom while keeping the Kingdom message of Jesus in its prominent place.

A text like 2 Corinthians 5 seems to get this balance correct.

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

To the extent that our status as persons “unreconciled” to God is a barrier to entering the new creation, Christ has reconciled us. In fact, that reconciliation is spoken of as a past fact from God’s side and only a question from our side, i.e. will we enter into a reconciled relationship and become ambassadors of reconciliation.

The death of Christ as our substitute and sacrifice is the focus of that mediation. In a sense, the cross is central in our reconciliation, but Christ and the Kingdom of God are central in the Christian message. There is no conflict here at all, as the cross shows us how it is possible for Christ to say “it has pleased the Father to give you the Kingdom.”

The promises of God come to us by the mediation of Jesus. That mediation exists in Jesus as a person, but is focused for us in the event of the cross, where the power of the Kingdom defeats the powers of evil and demonstrates the love of God in taking sin and death upon himself that we might walk in newness of life in the reign of God.

When Paul says he “knows nothing” but the cross, he is not setting up a tension between cross and Kingdom. He is simply saying there is only one Messiah: the crucified one. As astonishing as it sounded to the ears of Jews, Greeks and Romans, God’s cornerstone of the Kingdom was the stone that was rejected, cursed and nailed to the cross.

So the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus demonstrate that this crucified messiah is the victorious, vindicated King. He has brought the Kingdom to us through incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection. He is the “door,” the “way, truth and life.” He is the one who, having taken all our burdens upon himself can now invite us into the Kingdom of heaven, the new creation, and the new Jerusalem.

All of this underlines that our evangelism needs to preach Jesus, and not as a means to an end, but as the center of all that God offers to us. Christ is the Gospel. Jesus = salvation in every sense. At any moment we encounter Christ in the Gospel we are, in this one person, experiencing both Kingdom and Cross, reconciliation and invitation to discipleship, acceptance and Great Commission, missio dei as our purpose and as good news to each one of us.

Present Jesus Christ in the fullness of the Gospel presentation: mediator, kingdom-bringer, reconciler, teacher, Lord, discipler; and you will have presented all the evangel.

Comments

  1. Christ is the gospel. Amen. Hence, our duty to evangelize to those who are not in Christ yet.

    • I would only want to encourage you in proclaiming the risen Christ, so go for it…..but….I like “PRIVILEGE” a lot better than “DUTY”, though I know that responsibility is bound up in both words.

      Pax

  2. Mike, let me ask this from what I think is a mechanical perspective. Could it be said that instead of a person coming to Christ to create the reality of the kingdom in their lives, the reality has already been created by Christ and the person is invited to simply join in?

  3. Mark, I don’t feel a duty to evangelize.I feel a love of Jesus to be like Him and maybe people will see something in me that they would like to have.

    • I used to feel that way strongly, and so I can sympathize. My mind was changed by the long term consequences. As the fruits of the Spirit came and I had supernatural peace through trial and increased Christlikeness, all of the unsaved people in my life attributed that to my own goodness, even knowing the anger and darkness I had lived in before. It put me in a position of never effectually giving the glory to God. I don’t demean the importance of deeds, but if we never speak up they never hear the truth. There must be a balance between the two, and it is a balance beam I am still learning to walk.

      • The unsaved people in your life saw a change, that wasw your chance to speak up and tell them why. I didn’t mean to always be silent, but to wait for opportunities to share your faith, not bludgeon people with unwanted tracts anmd preaching.

      • The unsaved people in your life saw a change in you. That was your cue to tell them why you changed. I did not mean to always be silent, but to wait for opportunites to share your faith instead of bludgeoning people with tracts and unwanted witnessing. A person must be in a receptive mood to benefit from ones witnessing.

  4. Now ya talking!

  5. Great stuff, Mike. I’ll second and third this post.
    However, what you say here does bring to mind how crucial it is that the church refect the reality and nature of His kingdom — even if it’s an incomplete, imperfect reflection — rather than just dead religion.

  6. Great point. I think often the “final” prize of heaven and no more tears, etc is easier for many to swallow than the responsibility of evangelizing and sharing God’s love in a fallen and harsh world. I myself have made that mistake. Jesus’ announced that we must repent first and foremost. His ministry in my understanding is more focused on the hearts, minds and behaviors of the “now” in our lives then even our future.

  7. I used to think something was wrong with my testimony. Heaven was not a very important factor in my decision to follow Christ. Sure, I wanted to go there – but I needed my life on earth radically changed. Jesus did that for me.
    Over the years, I’ve gone door to door, preached and sang on the street, passed out Big Question tracts (If you were to die tonight…), marched in parades, held big signs, carried a large wooden cross, attempted one-on-one conversations and who knows what else. These things have their place, but I’ve never been too excited about pressing people to “make a decision” or “pray the sinner’s prayer”. Most people seem to resent having somebody’s religion forced upon them, and it often drives them away.
    I still go out on the streets, but now I concentrate on presenting the love of God as demonstrated through Jesus Christ. God’s kindness leads us to repent. He has completely changed my life, and I want others to have that experience as well. I really don’t care if they pray the prayer – I want them to know Jesus intimately and personally. Too many people have a fire escape relationship, when God desires so much more.