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The Gospel in Three Dimensions

There was an old white paper Tim Keller wrote back in February 2008 for internal purposes at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. I had just joined the pastoral staff maybe six months prior and he presented these ideas to the staff during a season when we were looking to develop more intentional pathways for spiritual growth at the church. That was more than 15 years ago now, but the ideas in that little white paper have continued to capture my imagination and have had me coming back time and again to draw fresh water from its insights. I was pleased to see that fragments of this paper ended up making it into his 2012 book Center Church (pp 46-48) but also wished it had been given a little more space to breathe in that massive volume. My hope is to give it some of that space here in this post, in part because I was genuinely surprised to discover recently how directly the values that animate our work here at Until Zion grow out of the ideas found in that paper.

It was entitled “Pathway Source Document,” a title so prosaic that it makes me laugh a little bit now. But its wholly unimaginative title captures the spirit of that moment where these ideas were just meant to serve basically as the mainframe for spiritual formation programming in a large church. Its MS-DOS language feels hilariously appropriate. But in it Tim pulls back the curtain on the beauty of Jesus’ kingdom in full 3-D. He states that the essential message of Jesus was the gospel of the kingdom: “The kingdom of God is near! Repent and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). Then he goes on to unfold for us the three dimensions of this kingdom and how they each invert the direction of our instincts and assumptions about what is true and good and beautiful.

The first dimension, he says, is that the kingdom of God is an “inside-out” kingdom. When the gospel enters an individual heart it flips it inside-out by filling it with faith in the atonement – Christ’s atoning death on the cross. The individual dimension of the gospel is that rather than seeking to earn a sense of approval and validation through your moral record or spiritual performance or personal achievements, the gospel proclaims the news that the only way you experience the kind of approval and validation your soul is craving is to receive it as a free, undeserved gift from God because of Jesus’s achievement on the cross for you and not your own. The direction of our personal quest for approval gets inverted by the logic of grace. We no longer place our trust in our outward performance, hoping the applause will seep into our souls and fill the void within. Instead, we experience the fullness of God’s unconditional love by grace alone and discover that his infinite love fills our emptiness to overflowing and begins to change us from the inside-out.

The second dimension of the kingdom of God is that it is an “upside-down” kingdom. When the gospel enters a community it flips it upside-down by filling it with the love embodied in Christ’s incarnation. The social dimension of the gospel of the kingdom is the news that the exalted, eternal Son of God made himself nothing, took on the nature of a servant, and became obedient to death for us, even death on a cross (Philippians 2). The society formed under the reign of this Christ could be nothing other than an upside-down community. In this kingdom, the first shall be last, the way up is the way down, the way to greatness is through servanthood, you gain your life by losing it. In this kingdom the meek inherit the earth, the poor are blessed, the proud are brought low and the lowly exalted. In this kingdom, the foolish shame the wise, the weak shame the strong, the despised to bring to nothing the noble. The entire direction of all our instincts around social status and power and belonging gets inverted by the logic of grace.

The third dimension of the kingdom of God is that it is a “forward-back” kingdom. When the gospel enters the entire world it flips it forward-back by filling it with the hope of Christ’s resurrection, that is, the hope of God’s future brought back into our reality today. The cultural or creational dimension of the gospel is the news that a future day is coming when the entire material world, the world of both nature and culture, will be cleansed of all suffering, disease, injustice and death. And that that day has already begun to dawn in the present with the rising of the Son on that first Easter Sunday. God’s future has begun to infiltrate our present. This third dimension of the gospel makes Christians both persistently hopeful for the world even in the face of great darkness yet also enduringly patient because the way of the kingdom is like a mustard seed and this final day comes not as a result of our efforts but as sheer gift of grace.

Zion is not built by human effort from the ground up like Babel; it comes down to us by grace as a gift from above (Rev 21:2). So the direction of our instincts around culture and creation are, in a sense, doubly inverted by the logic of grace. These instincts are to be formed neither by a conservative nostalgia (as if the future were not God’s) nor by a progressive idealism (as if the past were not God’s) but rather by a biblical hope in the forward-back logic of grace.

In my next post, I’ll expand a bit more on how all three of these dimensions of the gospel are crucial for the Christian life and how having even just two of the three results in a harmful distortion of our sense of calling and mission. But for now, I just want to point out what I was surprised to discover this week as I revisited these three dimensions of the kingdom. What I was surprised to discover was that the three values that animate our work at Until Zion — the theology of the Reformation, the centering of the margins, and the patience of the kingdom — are just re-articulations of the three dimensions of the kingdom of God. The “theology of the Reformation” is the theology that lifts up the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ in all things.

It is the inside-out kingdom of grace through faith. The “centering of the margins” is the commitment to strive to see the world from the perspective of the most vulnerable, not because of cultural Marxism or even less “woke-ism” (whatever people who use that as an epithet might mean by that) but because we see Jesus doing it. It is the upside-down kingdom of incarnational love. And the “patience of the kingdom” is the commitment to work toward the holistic renewal of East Harlem with both the patience and the hope that God’s future of healing and renewal has already dawned but will ultimately be consummated as a gift of pure grace. It is the forward-back kingdom of resurrection hope.

So maybe this little white paper Tim wrote actually did more than just unexpectedly stir my imagination in a staff meeting 15 years ago. Maybe it did serve for me as the mainframe that gave me the language and the concepts to form disciples who might live today in the 3-D kingdom of God. It apparently went pretty deep into my operating system. A “Pathway Source Document” indeed.


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