I became a Christian at age 9 to escape Hell. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not the only thing, and maybe not the best thing. It took me years to get past fear and learn to love God. In retrospect, I wish I could have started with love.
The quintessential evangelism question is, if you died tonight, are you sure you would be in Heaven tomorrow? But statistically, the chances are small the person will die tonight. While it’s dangerous to presume on the future, especially in the highest stakes game of all—eternity—is there a better and more realistic question?
Make no mistake—Hell is real, and nothing to be trifled with. But what about this question: If you don’t die tonight, so what?
What will you live for tomorrow? If you have another 10 or 20 years to live, will your life matter? Is there a reason to get out of bed in the morning?
In recent American Evangelical and Fundamentalist evangelism (we are a mix of the two in the Christian church movement), the gospel presentation has had two parts: sin and salvation.
The story is presented as, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious ideal. But Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins so we could be forgiven and spend eternity in Heaven with him.” But if that’s all of the story we tell, it may be heresy.
A partial truth told often enough becomes heresy. Our movement understands that well. We have encouraged other Christians to teach that the new birth includes faith, repentance, and baptism and have insisted strongly that partial presentations of that were inadequate. We may have been unknowingly and without malice guilty the same.
Jesus uses the word gospel in an interesting way: “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23, New American Standard Bible).
The “gospel of the kingdom”? For me the gospel summary has always been Paul’s words, “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. . . . For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
Both ways of expressing the gospel are important. Modern theologians with too much time on their hands debate the “conflict” between Jesus and Paul. But it’s likely more simple—Jesus spoke of the gospel (the good news a person needs to know and act on to become a disciple) as the kingdom of God coming on earth to restore the world to what God intended it to be. It would transform individuals and the world, wherever it was believed and followed. Paul taught Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection as the catalytic part of that story.
Four Chapters, Not Two
Put simply, the gospel of the kingdom is not a “two chapter” story (sin and salvation), but a “four chapter” story of God:
Designed for good. This story begins where the Bible begins, in Genesis, with a world that God designed for good. This goodness applied to our relationship with him, each other, and the earth. God’s story doesn’t only have a happy ending; it has a happy beginning—the world started well.
Damaged by evil. Because we thought we could accomplish “for good” better by ourselves and through our own resources, we messed things up. Evil (in both personal and social forms) has damaged our relationships with God, self, each other, and the earth. Basically, we created our own kingdoms that we thought would be better than God’s kingdom. We did it our way instead of his. Understanding sin as the problem of the human race is good news, because it’s a fixable problem.
Restored by Jesus. God’s love for this world compelled him to send his Son. Jesus’ purpose was not only to die, but also to invite us back into God’s original intention: the kingdom of God. His death and resurrection not only symbolizes the process of restoration (with God, self, others, and the earth), but puts to death the damaging evil of this world. Salvation is not just an individual experience that reserves our space in Heaven. It begins a holistic restoration of the broken relationships between God, each other, and the earth.
Joining God. The story does not stop with our own individual entry into the kingdom of God. God is already at work in the world—everywhere! We are invited to join him, first in a relationship with him, and then as junior partners in his work. We become at once his children and his servants. We are all sent as God’s missionaries into the world, to participate in making earth a little more like Heaven.
A Partial Gospel?
So does this really matter? Can’t we just tell people they are sinners and Jesus died to save them, and get to the rest later?
How has that worked for us so far? How can this country with three-fourths of the people claiming to be Christians lead the free world in incarceration and illegal drug use, have epidemic family breakdown, see millions of children malnourished and undereducated, and have a majority of its people saying the country is deteriorating? Are the Christians not living like Christians?
If Christians are coming up short, could part of that be because we started out shortsighted, with a partial gospel? Most evangelistic approaches in recent years centered on an individual’s sin and need for a Savior so they could go to Heaven. While that’s extremely important, it’s only half the story—a partial truth that has become a heresy.
In one way, the shorter gospel version may play into the problem—self-centeredness. It’s about my guilt (a very self-centered emotion), and my forgiveness, and my going to Heaven. It’s even common today to ask people if they accept Christ as their “personal Savior,” a very different question than whether they accept him as Lord.
And it can contribute to a passive Christianity. When a man says, “I got saved,” the most basic thing usually meant is he got his ticket to Heaven punched.
In Jesus’ model prayer he spoke of the kingdom as the will of God being done on earth as it is in Heaven. It means not only saving souls, but transforming the culture—changing the world.
The kingdom of God existed in the Garden of Eden. It exists in Heaven. The gospel Christ followers accept is becoming part of bringing that same kingdom to earth NOW—restoring the world to what he intended it to be. And all who follow him are part of the story.
Every child becoming a Christian deserves to hear not only that she will be forgiven of her sins and one day go to Heaven, but that God has gifted her with ability to make a difference in the world. In accepting Jesus, she’s deciding not to grow up to work for riches or fame or glamour, but to let God use her life to help people—to bring healing in the broken places of the world. She has the best possible future in this world, because in following Jesus, her life will make a difference for many people and please him.
Many church members have never “joined God.” They wanted God to join them. The story of the human race since Eden has been that we had a better plan for our lives than God. We set out to build our own “kingdoms.” God is welcome, if he’ll help us fulfill our dreams.
It’s a completely different picture when, instead of expecting God to help us write our story, we decide to become part of his story.
This may not be entirely our fault. A lot of us were shortchanged. We got just two chapters of the story—the sin and salvation parts. But we don’t have to continue the abridged version. Jesus taught a “gospel of the kingdom”—a restoration of the world to what God originally intended—not a shortcut to Heaven.
A foundational principle of the Christian church movement is restoration—a continual restoration of biblical truth. This essay isn’t intended as a final statement on anything. It is offered as potentially one more step in restoring a biblical Christianity. May God graciously continue to guide us to truth.
Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom is not just a gospel for dying, but for living! It gives purpose to every day, and at the end of the road, Heaven awaits.
Dick Alexander is senior minister with LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.