This post is an entry in the Prologue to Missional Discussion Synchroblog.

I am late with my entry in the syncrhoblog this week, but I am hoping to redeem my unsatisfactory (to me) entry from last week, especially as this week’s questions seem connected quite closely to last week’s.

The questions posed the synchrobloggers:
Should the definition of “salvation” be expanded beyond personal redemption of sins to include social justice? If not, what is the difficulty with the question of personal salvation?
Does God save individuals outside of anything other than the proclamation of the gospel through believers who make up the church?

My answer to the first question is simple: No. I believe the gospel is the historical fact of what Jesus Christ accomplished: sinless sacrifice for sin atonement, bodily resurrection for eternal life. This is the basic, non-negotiable truth of the news that God declares good. Notice that it is not advice, not suggestion, not instruction. Nor is it vague spirituality, steps to enlightenment, skills to implement, or precepts to practice. It is information; it is an announcement. It is news. News to be believed, yes, but it is not news of something that has yet to happen or something we can make happen, but rather something that has already happened and was made to happen by God himself.

There may be no need to further distill the gospel; Paul has done not just a good job in 1 Corinthians 15 but an authoritative job. But if we were to summarize his own summary, we might put it this way: The good news is that eternal life is possible because Jesus died to forgive sins and came back to life to conquer death. You may have walked down a church aisle, as I have, to accept an invitation to believe just that.

The gospel is what Jesus has accomplished; news of something that already happened. But what Jesus already did opens up an array of heavenly delights that he is doing and will do. Those things are good news too, but only in so far as they emanate from the gospel “of first importance,” as Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians 15. This is why I like to call penal substitution the sharp edge of the multi-faceted diamond that is atonement and Jesus’ death and resurrection the sharp edge of the many implications and applications of the gospel.

Where does the social justice stuff play in, then?

The New Testament talks about the gospel in ways other than the sharp edge, as its Spirit-inspired writers draw out the aftershocks of the good report. Jesus himself, and John the Baptist before him, are recorded in Matthew’s Gospel as preaching the “gospel of the kingdom,” in Mark’s and Luke’s just “the gospel.” They were not preaching the death and resurrection of Christ, at least not directly at first. They were announcing that God’s righteousness was finally coming to bear upon the real world, that the manifest presence of his sovereignty was finally breaking into history, as is the hope seen throughout the longing of Israel in the Old Testament. This in-breaking kingdom, of course, centers on Christ as King, and the coronation and exaltation of Christ as King hinges on his death and resurrection, so the “gospel of the kingdom” and Paul’s gospel of first importance are not really separate concepts, but degrees of magnification of the same concept. All analogies break down but perhaps we could say that Jesus’ death and resurrection are an electron and a proton, and that Christ’s kingdom is the atom they make up. (In this case, that atom would be hydrogen, but I’m an idiot when it comes to science, so that’s as far as I’ll take the analogy.) Jesus died and resurrected according to the Scriptures, which means God’s kingdom has come according to the Scriptures.

The kingdom of God was being inaugurated by and through Christ before his death, of course, but this inauguration was predicated upon his eventual (thorned) crowning and elevation upon the cross. (His announcement of the kingdom and his acting like the king preceded his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as well.) We could step back a bit and examine how Christ’s sinless life was integral to the efficacy of his eventual substitutionary sacrifice, which means his life before his death is implicitly integral to Paul’s gospel of first importance, but that sort of theological rabbit trail is beyond the scope of this post.

What we can say is that one primary way the Bible talks about the gospel is in the sense of “the kingdom,” but we cannot, as some writers and pastors today do, hermetically seal this form of the gospel off from the core announcement of the gospel found in 1 Corinthians 15. In fact, if you keep reading further into the chapter, you will see in verses 22-25, that Paul begins connecting Christ’s work on the cross and out of the tomb to the coming and consummation of God’s kingdom. In addition, the gospel of all the Scriptures has a cosmic scope that posits God’s glory itself as the sum of the good news. In this wide-angle view of the gospel, the good news is that the peace that was broken at the Fall will be restored in everything from God’s reconciliation with sinners to his establishing of the new heavens and the new earth. A cosmic gospel means the restoration of all things.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, we see the gospel referred to as holding power, as being power itself. Paul says in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is the power of salvation for those who believe it. In Ephesians 3:7 he says the gospel was given to him by God’s power. In 1 Thessalonians 1:5 he says the gospel is accompanied with power. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 he says the message of the gospel is the power of God. In Colossians 1:6 he says the gospel is bearing fruit and growing. Clearly this is information that is not merely information!

Mark 1:1 tells us that the gospel is Jesus himself. Acts 20:24 tells us that the gospel is God’s grace. Romans 15:16 tells us that God is the gospel. 2 Corinthians 4:4 tells us that the gospel is not just Christ, but his glory. Ephesians 6:15 tells us that the gospel is peace.

What we see in all of this is not many different gospels, but the many facets to the gospel of first importance. It is one song, but many notes. There are also implications and applications of the gospel: the birth of the Church, the reconciliation between sinners, the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the healing of the sick, the deliverance of the demoniac, the rescue of the impoverished, etc. All of these and more are part of the fruit that the power of the gospel bears. But the essential mustard seed of the gospel is the incredible historical event of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. This is good news because you and I are sinners who are under God’s wrath and will die under the penalty of that wrath—destined for hell—without this divine intervention.

The second question posed, again, is this: Does God save individuals outside of anything other than the proclamation of the gospel through believers who make up the church?

My answer may seem a cop-out, I’m sure, but I default back to the one halfway decent thing I think I said in the last entry: That the church is the locus of God’s saving work doesn’t mean the church is the limit of it.

I believe babies who die and the mentally deficient are elect unto salvation. Obviously the church’s proclamation of the explicit gospel and conscious belief in its propositions is not taking place here. So God can (and I think does, probably) save people outside the proclamation of the gospel by believers. But usually when someone asks this question, they mean to tease out the implications for missions and evangelism. And I cannot say what Scripture doesn’t: we don’t get to go hands off because of what God may or may not be doing to renew all things. We are commanded to preach the gospel and make disciples, and that’s what we should do.

If God saves people apart from proclamation of the gospel by believers it will be in spite of our efforts and strategies, not because of them.

Others participating in the conversation:

Ed Stetzer
Rick Meigs: The Blind Beggar
Bill Kinnon: kinnon.tv
Brother Maynard: Subversive Influence
David Fitch: Reclaiming the Mission
Tiffany Smith: Missional Mayhem
Jared Wilson: The Gospel-Driven Church
Jonathan Dodson: Creation Project

Feel free to explore and read their takes on the question. So for the sake of conversation, leave a comment with your own answer to the questions “Should the definition of “salvation” be expanded beyond personal redemption of sins to include social justice? If not, what is the difficulty with the question of personal salvation?
Does God save individuals outside of anything other than the proclamation of the gospel through believers who make up the church?”

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7 thoughts on “The Sharp Edge of the Gospel and the Fruit of Its Implications”

  1. Jason says:

    "I believe babies who die and the mentally deficient are elect unto salvation."Having an autistic son, I really really really really really really hope you're right.The thought he may spend eternity in hell because he doesn't really understand Jesus eats at me.

  2. zach hoag says:

    I can see, and pretty much agree with, your angle on the question. One thing to consider, though, is the necessity of doing justice in order to stand at the judgment (Matt. 25, etc.). This is something that some folks would consider "necessary for salvation" and thus central to personal salvation, even though that's not the wording I'd choose, being a good Protestant.It does lead me to the conclusion, though, that the restorative justice of God, insofar as it manifests itself through the church operating in the obedience of faith, is more than an implication of the gospel. It is of "first importance" even though it may not have made it into Paul's discourse.However, I would still say that it is not of "first importance" over against the individual appropriation of forgiveness and new life through faith. It is only of first importance alongside that appropriation.The gospel, for me, thus has a missional thrust:Jesus lived for me, Jesus died for me, Jesus rose from death for me. All of this was for my forgiveness, my new life, and my participation in the restorative justice of his kingdom.

  3. Jared says:

    Zach, I may be with you, so long as we are saying the good works were prepared by God beforehand and that it is he who is working in us to will and to work according to good pleasure.In other words, I do not believe the Bible warrants our saying the gospel is our working social justice, but I do embrace the angle that the gospel "means" there will be social justice.And of course a lot of this depends on what social justice is defined as. Is the gospel what Angelina Jolie is doing?

  4. zach hoag says:

    To your first paragraph, yes, agreed. For sure.As for Angelina, no, she only has half of it, or maybe a quarter. My point is simply that prioritizing the forgiveness/eternal life dimension over the restorative/kingdom justice dimension isn't quite right in my view. But you must have both standing side by side in order for it to be the gospel.Brad Pitt, however, is clearly saved because of his performance in 12 Monkeys.

  5. Jared says:

    To follow up, I think what I'd say is that to the extent social justice is done by us is the extent to which it is not good news, but the extent to which it is good news is the extent to which it is done by God. Don't know if that makes sense.I also realize I have sloppily misread the first question in the synchroblog query. The question is not "should the gospel be expanded beyond the personal to include things like social justice?" but "should salvation be expanded beyond the personal to include things like social justice?"This is a sticky wicket too, but I do think we OFTEN short-shrift what salvation wholly is by making it a personalized, privatized thing. But I think some error is done when salvation is thought of as "God changing the world" and the salvation of persons is some subset of that. God is remaking creation for us. Well, really he's doing it for his own glory, but we weren't originally made to be "a part" of creation but to enjoy fellowship with God and steward creation. So I think that whatever God is doing to remake and restore all things will result not in our being one more item in the new heavens and new earth but to be his glory-reflecters as princes, co-heirs with his Son, over the restored creation.I guess what I'm saying is, I wonder if new creation is made for man, not man for new creation. :-)

  6. Ed Stetzer says:

    Jared,I understand the comments about those under a certain age, etc. But what I was hoping to show from my posts it that the redefinition of salvation "merged"– and many were both willing to see salvation as social justice AND to see God saving outside the propagation of the gospel. Actually, that is a mainsteam view outside of evangelicalism. You said, "My answer may seem a cop-out, I'm sure, but I default back to the one halfway decent thing I think I said in the last entry: That the church is the locus of God's saving work doesn't mean the church is the limit of it… If God saves people apart from proclamation of the gospel by believers it will be in spite of our efforts and strategies, not because of them."The scripture with which I have to wrestle is Romans 10:13,14: "For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent?"So, I think we are sent so that they might hear because they NEED to hear. Seems like you agree, but I'd be interested in you expanding on this: "That the church is the locus of God's saving work doesn't mean the church is the limit of it…"I don't think it is, as you said, a "cop out," but it's an important question.If we define church as believers, I'd like to get more on how it "doesn't mean the church is the limit of it." I agree with that (in some ways) but am really concerned with the view in mainline circles that decimated global missions by saying, "Who are we to say? God is bigger than the church and is at work outside the church, so we can trust him to have a plan for those who don't hear." Today, they do little global mission.I think believers living sent on God's global mission is His plan.Ed

  7. Jared says:

    Ed, I understand your concern. I share it.but I'd be interested in you expanding on this: "That the church is the locus of God's saving work doesn't mean the church is the limit of it…"I only mean that the church doesn't have a mission so much as the mission has a church. :-)What I mean to say is that the Church on mission is the design for the proclamation of the saving gospel. But because it is God's mission, God's gospel, and God's proclamation, he may circumvent the disobedience, the negligence, or the ignorance of the Church if he wishes. And the babies/mental deficients was just one way to suggest that God does do that outside of proclamation. This leads me to be "agnostic" about angels preaching to far flung peoples unreached by the Church, etc. But it does not lead me — nor should it lead others — to be ambivalent about the far flung peoples (or the neighbor next door). We can't say, "Well, maybe an angel will get 'em." :-) Our worship necessitates gospel mission.I'd like to get more on how it "doesn't mean the church is the limit of it." I agree with that (in some ways) but am really concerned with the view in mainline circles that decimated global missionsYes, perhaps I cold switch up the emphasis by rephrasing it to say: "The Church may not be the limit of salvation, but it is the locus of it."I know my perspective opens up the temptation for disobedience. I hoped to address this near the end of my post when I wrote:"We don't get to go hands off because of what God may or may not be doing to renew all things. We are commanded to preach the gospel and make disciples, and that's what we should do."Thanks for sharpening me, Ed.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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