One of my favourite quotes is: “The glory of God is a person fully alive” by St. Irenaeus. I’ve been reflecting on it a lot lately. Specifically, I’ve been asking myself the question, “How does the gospel help us become ‘fully alive’?”
I believe we’re living in an exciting time. It’s a time when there is a growing hunger within many of us to become “fully alive” to what matters; to get Scripture-centered clarity on the issues of love, justice, beauty and truth. Out of this hunger, there’s is a groundswell rejection of any vision of Christianity and church that is insular and myopic. There is a yearning by more and more people to leave “Churchianity” behind. We are looking for a grand kingdom vision that pulls us in, takes us apart, reconstructs us, and then pushes us out into our neighbourhoods, cities and world. More and more people are hungering to have the life and character of Jesus formed in them in ways that benefit and beautify the world.
This vision, however, will never come to pass so long as our gospel remains small and narrow.
The “good news” (gospel) that the evangelical church has focused on for the past 30-50 years has been dominated by atonement theology: “Jesus came in order to die for your sins so that you could live with him in heaven forever.” While this might not strike anyone as negative, Dallas Willard (and others) have been warning us that this gospel is incomplete. The gospel Scripture gives us celebrates Jesus’ atonement, but it cannot be reduced to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for sin.
Writing on the dangers of holding to a “Gospel of the Atonement,” Dallas Willard notes:
“The way it practically works out is this, if you have the Gospel of the Atonement, and that’s all you’ve heard, the rest of your life you will run on your own and you may or may not think of being a disciple of Jesus or of obeying him or of devoting your life to the Kingdom of God. You can still do that, but those things are all optional for you. That is where we really stand in our Christian culture today. Anything more than forgiveness of sins, and by that I mean ‘Heaven when you die’, is optional and most of our professed believers now do not know that they can live in the Kingdom of God now.”
Willard says that the Gospel of the Atonement inevitably morphs into “Vampire Christianity,” where one in effect says to Jesus: “I’d like a little of your blood, please. But I don’t care to be your student or have your character. In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I’ll see you in heaven.”
The outworking of this truncated gospel is churches full of Christians who take comfort in the fact that they are “saved,” but churches full of Christians who lack a compelling vision for their lives as followers of Christ. Over time, churches become filled with people going through the motions as they wait to die (after all, that’s when salvation “kicks-in,” right?).
What a sad situation, given that the gospel given to us in Scripture offers so much more life and power!
What is the full gospel?
While the atoning sacrifice of the cross is a critical part of the gospel, a full gospel embraces Manger, Cross and Crown.
Manger (Incarnation): Jesus is God and is right about everything. He came to show, in his life and actions, how to be a human “fully alive to the glory of God” (cf. John 10:10)
Cross (Atonement): Jesus, because of his substitutionary self-sacrifice, has eliminated the barrier that keeps me under the penalty of sin. I can have forgivenss for sin and be reconciled to God, not because of anything I’ve done, but because of what Jesus has done on my behalf (1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10).
Crown (New Creation): Jesus has been resurrected and has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:16-20). The resurrection of Jesus means that New Creation is breaking forth, and God has given Christians his spirit as a regenerating force to transform them for kingdom living and kingdom impact. Through the Spirit’s power and God’s grace, Christians can learn to live under the power of grace instead of the power of sin (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The piece of the gospel puzzle that evangelicalism has tended to overlook (or miss completely) is Crown. However, when your gospel embraces the implications of resurrection and New Creation, you’re assumptions about what it means to be a Christian radically shift. If God has launched a world-reclamation project centered on his Son, he will need people who are (re)formed into his likeness and character; people who “put on Christ” and are the literal hands and feet and mouths and eyes and ears of Jesus in this world. Out of this view, discipleship to Jesus comes clearly and naturally into view. Given the realities of Manger, Cross, and Crown, I need to become a disciple because I need to learn new habits of heart, soul, mind and strength in order that Jesus’ heart and character are formed in me so that I can live as he would live through my life.
If your gospel is basically Cross (atonement theology), the classic evangelical question,”If you were to die tonight, do you know whether you’d go to heaven?” makes sense. However, if your gospel is Manger, Cross, and Crown, the question of what would happen if you were to die tonight becomes secondary to a more critical one: “If you don’t die tonight, what are you going to do tomorrow?’
If your theology is essentially atonement centered, it will be difficult for you to articulate a response to that last question. But having Crown as an integral part of your understanding of the good news of Christianity gives you the missing piece. “If I don’t die tonight, what am I going to do tomorrow?”
“I’m going to partner with God and carry forward his New Creation mission. I’m going to pursue the character and heart of Christ, and figure out what I need to do in order to become the kind of person through whom his justice, love, beauty and goodness explodes into the world in surprising, innovative, awe-inspiring ways.”
If we move forward with that vision and ambition, we’ll soon discover we’re becoming a person fully alive, and God will be glorified.