I remember years ago there was a lot of attention on defining “the gospel”. Everyone wanted to be gospel centered. During that time I devoured everything I could get my hands on in order to ‘get the gospel right’. There were times during the whole conversation that frustrated me because I was exposed to ‘other gospels’ that didn’t mesh with what I learned in the neo-Calvinistic world.
In the midst of the sub-Christian culture war, I picked the Neo-reformed side. At least my perception of what that side had to offer. It wasn’t until after the banter calmed down that I was able to reckon with my own perception of the gospel. I want to share five paradigm shifts that took place post-war over the next few years following. These shifts aren’t meant to be rigid boundaries that suggest I get the gospel and others don’t. They simply function for me as some of the foundational frames for how I see the gospel.
5 Paradigm Shifts
God of Anger to God is Love
In those early days, the fundamental driver of the gospel was God’s holiness and God’s anger. In this paradigm, God was angry. God’s wrath was the beginning and end for sinners outside of Jesus. Wrath was something distinct from God’s love. It was said that God is love and God is wrath; these were two equal forces that existed in God’s character.
Now I see that God is love, period. In a joke on a podcast I listened to earlier this year, the podcasters mention that God is not an amalgamation or bricolage of different attributes. The God we see revealed in Jesus is love, no asterisks needed. Reading from the patristics and the Eastern Orthodox church fundamentally shaped my Christology. God is love. This is the burning center of who God is. Anger describes a way we experience God’s love as it meets us in a state of hard-heartedness. God’s love is primary. God’s anger is secondary.
Escape to Heaven to Renewal of Creation
Read N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”. Ok, let’s move on to the next one.
On second thought, let me explain. In the Protestant world, especially in the pews, despite what our best pastor-theologians say, most people I know think our ultimate hope is to go to heaven.
This is changing slowly but at that time, much of the evangelism people were been trained in began with a question of, “Why should God let you into heaven?” We’d then help people see how they broke a few laws and clearly were not going to make it on their own merits.
The shift for me came when I noticed that “going off to heaven” wasn’t the concern of the people of Israel. When Jesus teaches us to pray, his longing is that heaven (God’s space) would dwell on earth and that people would welcome that and would willingly live into that. New Creation: the reconciliation of heaven and earth is our hope. The gospel isn’t about God saving us from creation; creation groans for its redemption, not destruction.
Gospel as “How to Get Saved” to “Participation in Life with God”
In those days, the gospel for me was centered on “getting saved.” As I understood it, individual salvation, getting in the door, was the heart of the gospel. Assurance of salvation was about having my theology right and having enough faith in a particular atonement theory and not in my works. Disclaimer: this never produced assurance.
Instead, I began to see salvation in terms of participation in life with God and his people not simply about “getting in” by the skin of my teeth. Jesus says, this is eternal life, that you know the Father and his Son, whom he has sent. Salvation became less about a decision I made some time ago and more about full access and participation in the life of the Trinity. It wasn’t something static that I had to simply clutch on too in fear. It was dynamic, something I could receive and live into every day, God’s very own life and love in union with his Son.
Demanding Perfection to Invitation to be Human
In the old paradigm, God was a perfectionist demanding perfection. Life was more like a test than a relationship/partnership. As the story goes, Adam and Eve sinned once and failed the test. Therefore, God had to punish them. Continuing forward, the basic story of Israel is that God gave them a strict law that had they had to perform perfectly. The gospel then becomes a message of Jesus living perfectly in our place so that he could earn our way into heaven. This view was encapsulated for me in the statement that suggest, through faith, God doesn’t see us anymore, he only sees Jesus.
Through reading from others outside of my Calvinistic tradition, I began to see the story of scripture much differently. The first story in scripture isn’t about a test but a vocation and partnership gone awry. The story of Adam and Eve is archetypal of the human narrative. We all have rejected our vocation to be human as God intended. This friends is what it means to miss the mark. Through rejecting the author of life we have brought death on ourselves. And the gospel is about Jesus entering our condition, suffering with us and for us, to set us free to be co-partners in creation as God originally intended. Amazing!
God Needs to be Reconciled to Us to We Need to be Reconciled to God
The “heart of the gospel” in the old paradigm was that God needed to punish Jesus in order to reconcile himself to us. The gospel ironically wasn’t about God changing us but Jesus enabling God to be able to be with us. One of the most popular catch phrases that encapsulated this belief for me was that “God could not stand the presence of sin”. Therefore, Jesus had to do something so that God wouldn’t lash out at us.
The shift for me was in noticing that Jesus says darkness runs from the light. Not the other way around. God is the one pursuing us. The gospel isn’t about Jesus having to change the Father’s mind in order for us to be united. Instead, it was Jesus changing our mind about God. It was us who needed to be changed and set free from our bondage. Jesus wasn’t on the cross doing something so that the Father’s fundamental disposition toward us would be changed (anger to love). Rather, it was God in Christ, as Paul says, reconciling us to himself.
Which of the five paradigm shifts would be most helpful for you?
Which shift are you struggling with the most?