Monday, November 24, 2008

Believe the Good News, 6

So, what is the good news?

In the last post we suggested that for both Paul and Jesus (in the synoptic gospels), the good news is the announcement of an event, a dramatic turning of the ages. God's future day of salvation has broken into the present, and it is possible for us to belong to that day now and participate in its reality, even if only partially.

Let me note here two things about this before I move on to another aspect of the gospel. Salvation here belongs to God. It is his realm in which we participate, not a status that we own as our private possession. This is a pretty big distinction, the implications of which would change the way we do a lot of things in Christian practice. Tied to this is the idea that salvation encompasses more than just individuals. Salvation is intended for all of creation. As Paul points out in Romans 8, "for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God." The salvation of God is big, and includes more than just my skinny rear end getting to heaven.

But back to our question, what is the gospel? While both Mark 1:15 and 1 Cor 15 see the gospel as the announcement of an event, they use different language to talk about it. In Mark, Jesus proclaims the "gospel of God," namely the nearness of God's kingdom, or his reign. In 1 Cor 15, the event Paul proclaims as gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Are these two different things?

Let's start on the gospels side of things (and here I mean the synoptics, John's gospel being yet another expression). The kingdom of God is a different way of ordering reality, and specifically it is another way of understanding power. It is a way of establishing order through self-giving, not through the politics of preservation and privilege. The way of the kingdom, the path on which it emerges, is precisely the way of the cross.

Think about this. It is possible to tell the story of Jesus without telling an infancy narrative. Neither Mark or John include one. But it is not possible to tell the story apart from the death and resurection. Several have referred to the gospels as passion stories with introductions. In the case of Mark, the narrative is brisk and spare until we get to Jerusalem for the final episodes in Jesus' life. Luke leaves no doubt that Jesus is going to Jerusalem, that this is the payoff of the story. His death and resurrection is not simply an event on his horizon, it is the event that allows to understand everything he does.

This is why followers are called to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. This way, the way of the last becoming the first, the least becoming the greatest, children being received and the rich sent away empty, is the way that the reign of God becomes visible, manifest in the world. This is not an abdication of power on the part of Jesus. It is the very demonstration of God's redeeming power. Humility is power. It makes things happen and in certain ways: the same for meekness, peacemaking, mourning, etc. The sign that this way of life will endure in the age to come is the resurrection. This is the life that God honors.

So, in the gospels, the kingdom of God and the death and resurrection are inseparably linked. But what about in Paul's account of the gospel? Is the account of Jesus' death and resurrection about a new ordering of reality?

in 1 Cor 15, Paul insists that the gospel he proclaimed is that which they "received, in which they stand, through which they are being saved." That's a lot to claim for the gospel. It is not simply a message for outsiders to "receive." It is also that which allows believers to "stand," a reality in which "they are being saved." This language of "being saved" echoes 1 Cor 1:18, "the word of the cross is foolishness to those who perishing, but to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God."

Notice, this word (logos) of the cross is defined by Paul as the power of God. It creates a certain kind of world. It is operational. I like the language or Romans 5 where Paul compares the "dominion" of sin and death to the "dominion of grace." We tend to think of grace as simply God's willingness to overlook our shortcomings. But its much bigger than that for Paul. It is an environment, a dominion, a way of ordering the world, through which a whole new human community emerges. The logic of the cross, a script of radical trust in God, allows us to consider others ahead of ourselves, to love one another with deep affection, to contribute to the needs of the saints. These are the actions of those who trust in the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead. The fruit of the Spirit are not simply prerequisites for power: they are God's power and the produce a different kind of ordering where faith works itself out in love.

For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a continuing event. For those who participate in this event, there is a new creation, a new ordering of God's world established by self-giving love. It is a dominion, a reign, a kingdom.

One last word. It is important that we remember that this reign comes to us from the future. It is done. It is accomplished. There is nothing we can do to extend it, increase its borders, or put it at risk. As such, it is a gift. While it involves a way of life (repent and believe the good news), this is no works salvation. It belongs to God. It is his future. We cannot build it, we can only receive it. This is grace.

Notice here that we have talked about the gospel and salvation without talking about a theory of the atonement. Yet for many people, the gospel is equal to penal substitutionary atonement without remainder. I want to continue to push on this, because it's a big deal. I think without pushing on this, the attempt to become missional churches will falter. We define mission in relation to our understanding of salvation, and a theory of atonement, any theory of the atonement, simply won't get us to missional.


Redlefty said...

Excellent! Sounds to me like you're doing just fine getting this all formed in your mind and through the keyboard.

I'm reading certain paragraphs over and over because they're that good. Thank you.

Richard Beck said...

Mark, are you planning on showing how the language of sacrifice fits into vision you paint here. Is it a Girardian add on or something different? Why, exactly, is there blood involved? And what is that blood doing in "continually cleansing" us?

Mark Love said...

You're a trouble maker, Richard Beck. Two pieces to my answer. First, the language of atonement is not exclusive and I think secondary in describing salvation (second order, if you will). It is a picture, an important one, but is subsequent to the saving significance of participation. Second, the way we have bundled wrath, blood, sacrifice, forgiveness, etc is nowhere spelled out quite that way in the Bible. I'm open to pictures being in tension here, blood being understood in different ways, sacrifice, etc. The church never felt the need to canonize an explanation of atonement, and I don't think we should either. So, the way Girard goes (Heim) is one alternative way of understanding the picture, but there are others. A prof here at Luther is writing a book right now on atonement and escapes some of the baggage of penal subst atonement without going the Girardian route. My approach has the advantage of not requiring precision from a picture. So, I had hoped to just refer readers to your blog and its treatment of Heim. It's compelling, and I think has real merit, but doesn't account for all of the language in the NT, nor should it be required to be a legitimate take on things.

One last thing. Many people use the terms death and sacrifice interchangeably. Sacrifice is already an interpretation, one that is in the bible, but not the only one, and not in my view, the primary one.


Chris said...

I agree with what you've said, though sometimes I fear that with the our tendency to downplay (often, bash) PSA, we communicate at least tacitly that either atonement metaphors or more fully developed theories aren't important, perhaps even not necessary at all. I _do_ think it should be part of the missional move to help us realize that we must paint such pictures and work towards filling in the soteriological gaps. I guess what I'm saying is we also must become intentional about helping people locate a contextual soteriology/theory of atonement that will be livable and faithful.

Mark Love said...


Agreed. And I think the way to do that is to start with the event. As we live into the event in a local context, we will by necessity be forced to find language, some of it traditional, some of it new. And we will need local theological artists to help us do that. I'll just say that would also take a different paradigm of minister training.


Chris said...

Yes. Precisely. I guess we need to figure out how to train soteriartisans. I'm in. What about you? Hope your Thanksgiving was full of it (i.e., Thanksgiving, turkey).