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For the first decade of my Christian life, I thought the gospel was this: Man’s sin separates him from God, but Jesus came to earth, lived a perfect life, died for our sins, and resurrected so that anyone who trusts in Him will have eternal life. I think this fits most American evangelicals’ definition of the gospel.
This definition isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete. The gospel is a cosmic plan of redemption for all things, not just people. As most evangelicals know, God is going to make (if I can use that word) a new heavens and a new earth where everything will be made right. Yes, Christians’ relationship with God will be made right, but so will our relationship with others–and nature will be made right too, sin will not be present, death will cease to be a word, and disease will no longer cause any affliction. God’s kingdom is a restoration of all things.
As a result of this incomplete gospel, we focus most of our attention on evangelizing individual lost souls. The social justice part (sometimes) falls to the wayside. If we do focus on social justice, it’s usually to show people kindness so they will see how nice Christians are and want to become one. Indeed, I once attended a church that preached this.
Of course, since humans are made in God’s image and we are immortal, it’s most important that we focus on people joining the Kingdom. But our job as Christians is more than that. It’s to bring God’s kingdom to earth. That means our mission necessarily includes social justice–that is, things like education, stopping sex trafficking, restoring relationships, alleviating poverty, curing disease, nourishing the natural environment, creating great art, and so many others. These are, contrary to what my former church taught, goals in and of themselves.
If I were a leader at my former church, I would frame their focus a bit differently. Instead of making service and social justice work only a means to get to evangelism, emphasize that we bring the Kingdom through all social justice work—that it is, indeed, an end in itself—and evangelism is included in that. In other words, we are doing these projects and helping people to bring the Kingdom into this world. Along the way, we invite people in.
It’s not that Christians don’t make the world better. They do. But I think we could be even more effective if we re-evaluated our understanding of the gospel and focused even more energy on bringing God’s kingdom to earth. Think of the difference that would make in evangelism as well. If we worked harder to bring God’s kingdom to earth, how much more would unbelievers be open to hearing about Christ’s offer for a part in His great Kingdom?
This also reframes the way we present the gospel. Formerly, we would focus on how that one person could get to heaven. Now, we tell them of this great Kingdom of our God, and that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes a way for those who trust in Him to become part of that Kingdom. This second way of presenting the gospel still contains the point of the first, but it paints the gospel in a grander, more majestic color that it deserves.
When Jesus, at the beginning of His ministry, said, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15), He meant much more than just people getting to heaven. Indeed, in context it wouldn’t have made sense for Jesus to say “good news” (which is what gospel means) if what He meant was our traditional definition (that is, that He lived a perfect life, died the death we deserve, and rose again so those who believe would get to heaven). He had just started His ministry–people didn’t know He was going to die and resurrect. No, what He meant was so much more, even though salvation is a wonder in and of itself. I pray we would adopt His definition.