Is Your Gospel Too Small?

TBT with Every Square Inch: Reading the Classics

For over forty years, South African believer Michael Cassidy has thought long and hard about what it means to be a Christ-follower in this broken world. In his book on the fight against apartheid, The Passing Summer, Cassidy wrote, “Conversion marks the birth of the movement out of merely private existence into a public consciousness. Conversion is the beginning of active solidarity with the purposes of the kingdom of God in this world.”

This arresting view of salvation provides a rich foundation for life as the tsaddiqim [“the righteous” in Prov. 11:10]. Unfortunately, such a definition of what it means to be a Christian is unfamiliar to many American evangelicals. This is because, in many of our churches, our gospel is too small. While it is rightly centered on the vital atoning work of Jesus on the cross, many churches preach an individual gospel limited to “having a personal relationship with Jesus.” This fails to grasp the comprehensive significance of his redemptive work, which directs Christ-followers into the righteous lifestyle of the tsaddiqim, who gladly join Jesus on his grand mission of restoration.

The Too-Narrow Gospel

The most common presentation of the gospel in contemporary American evangelicalism centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus. This gospel begins with humankind’s most fundamental and desperate reality: we are sinners separated from God. It then offers the very good news that God, in his mercy, is willing to forgive us.

To effect that, he sent his own beloved Son to live the life we should have lived and die the death we deserve to die. Through Jesus’s atoning work, we can enter into fellowship with God our Creator and Father. We put our trust in Jesus as Savior, asking God to credit Jesus’s righteousness to our account. We admit that we have not lived as we should have (namely, for God’s glory), and we “accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.” Our profession of faith makes us part of God’s family. Because of Jesus’s atonement, we are freed from the punishment of sin (eternal death in hell). We receive the gift of eternal life from Jesus. Through faith in him, we can be confident that we will go to heaven when we die.

The Bridge Illustration

The Bridge illustration, an old evangelistic tool, portrays the gospel succinctly. It highlights the atoning work of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners. It shows a person on one side of a deep canyon. This represents us in our sin. God and heaven are on the opposite side of the canyon. No amount of human effort can get the sinner from one side of the canyon to the other. We can try to jump (that is, earn our way through good works), but we will only plummet to our death. The only way for a sinner to obtain God’s eternal life is through the gracious, free gift of the cross. Jesus’s cross serves as a bridge that connects the two sides of the canyon. By turning away from our own efforts and relying fully on Jesus’s shed blood, we are able to walk across that bridge.

The gospel as depicted in the Bridge illustration is true. It rightly presents humankind’s fundamental dilemma (separation from God due to our sinfulness). It rightly gives God glory by showing both his holiness (he will not overlook sin) and his mercy (he offers his Son to pay the penalty our sin deserved). It rightly lifts up the cross of Christ, with its utterly unique power. It puts human beings in their proper place, and God in his.

But this gospel isn’t complete.

The glorious truths celebrated in this too-narrow gospel do not, in themselves, capture the full, grand, amazing scope of Jesus’s redemptive work. For Jesus came preaching not just this gospel of personal justification but the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus’s work is not exclusively about our individual salvation, but about the cosmic redemption and renewal of all things. It is not just about our reconciliation to a holy God—though that is the beautiful center of it. It is also about our reconciliation with one another and with the creation itself. The atoning work of Jesus is bigger and better than that captured by the Bridge illustration.

Jesus’s Holistic Ministry

A context in which much Christian preaching, music, and books emphasize a highly individualistic understanding of the gospel does not provide rich soil for the nurture of believers who will live as the tsaddiqim. This too-narrow gospel focuses believers missionally only on the work of “soul winning.” It has little to say about Jesus’s holistic ministry or the comprehensive nature of his work of restoration. It focuses on the problem of personal sin only, thus intimating that sanctification is a matter only of personal morality. It focuses believers on getting a ticket to heaven, but doesn’t say much about what their life in this world should look like. Put differently, it focuses only on what we’ve been saved from, rather than also telling us what we’ve been saved for.

With a theology that’s all about getting a ticket to heaven for when I die, it’s not surprising that many Christians don’t show much interest in the question of how to live life now, in this world. When our churches teach a salvation that is only from (from sin and death), it’s not hard to understand why so many believers don’t seem to know what salvation is for. And if we preach a gospel that is only, or mainly, about “saving souls,” we shouldn’t be shocked if we end up with congregations that are not very motivated to care for bodies and material needs.

Case Study: South Africa

In the brokenness of South Africa before the fall of apartheid, Michael Cassidy labored relentlessly to nurture white Christians who would lives as the tsaddiqim. At the heart of his work was solid, biblical preaching about God’s grand story of creation, Fall, redemption and consummation. He challenged believers to eschew a private faith that excused them from the hard work of living as Christ’s disciples, imitating Jesus’s sacrificial, others-centered life. Cassidy worked tirelessly with leaders to help the church get its “act together whereby vertical and horizontal components of the gospel are brought into balance.”

Cassidy also labored to show South African believers that Christianity isn’t simply about having a ticket to heaven. It’s about working for society’s renewal now in ways that “reflect more truly the lordship of Christ over all spheres of the life of man.” He taught that believers were residents of two cities—the heavenly and the earthly—and that they were “not permitted to abandon either.” Their charge was to work in this material world as “an outcrop of the kingdom of God on earth.” It was to “serve notice” to a watching world that “there is more to reality than meets the eye … Because we love something else more than this world, we love [this] world better than those who know no other.”

Under God’s providence, many of the groans of the oppressed in South Africa have been addressed. Happily, that nation shed the vicious policy of apartheid in the early 1990s—and Christians like Cassidy and his followers played an important role in that miracle.

Today, in cities at home and abroad, many of God’s children continue to cry out for justice and shalom. Evangelical churches in America have innumerable opportunities to rejoice in these communities. This will happen when our churches produce Christ-followers who lives as the tsaddiqim. 


Taken from Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy L. Sherman. Copyright © 2011 by Amy L. Sherman. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com 


Editors' note: TBT (Throwback Thursday) with Every Square Inch: Reading the Classics is a weekly column that publishes some of the best writings on vocation from the past. Our hope is to introduce you to thoughtful literature that you may not have discovered yet and, as always, to encourage you to know and love Christ more in all spheres of your life. This week’s TBT is chosen to highlight TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry, which reads, in relevant part:

The good news of the Bible is not only individual forgiveness but the renewal of the whole creation. God put humanity in the garden to cultivate the material world for his own glory and for the flourishing of nature and the human community. The Spirit of God not only converts individuals (e.g., John 16:8) but also renews and cultivates the face of the earth (e.g., Gen 1:2; Psalm 104:30). Therefore Christians glorify God not only through the ministry of the Word, but also through their vocations of agriculture, art, business, government, scholarship—all for God’s glory and the furtherance of the public good. Too many Christians have learned to seal off their faith–beliefs from the way they work in their vocation. The gospel is seen as a means of finding individual peace and not as the foundation of a worldview—a comprehensive interpretation of reality affecting all that we do. But we have a vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do carpentry, plumbing, data–entry, nursing, art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. Such a church will not only support Christians’ engagement with culture, but will also help them work with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability in their trades and professions. Developing humane yet creative and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel is part of the work of bringing a measure of healing to God’s creation in the power of the Spirit. Bringing Christian joy, hope, and truth to embodiment in the arts is also part of this work. We do all of this because the gospel of God leads us to it, even while we recognize that the ultimate restoration of all things awaits the personal and bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ (CS–[13]).

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