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The Gospel in Three Dimensions, Part 2

In my last article here, I drew from an old Tim Keller white paper from 2008 and tried to show how a comprehensive vision of the gospel of the kingdom inverts our instincts and assumptions in three directions. When the gospel enters the individual human heart, it takes the heart and turns it inside-out by grace through faith in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. When the gospel enters human communities, it takes that community and turns it upside-down by grace through the self-emptying love of the incarnation of Jesus. And when the gospel enters the material world, it takes the world and turns it forward-back by grace through the sure hope of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Imagining these directions as three axes on a grid, they become the height, width and depth of the gospel. When held together, they produce a vision for a three-dimensional kingdom that resists any attempt on our part to flatten and domesticate it.

Okay, now, if you could shift metaphors with me just a little bit. As I was trying to wrestle down these ideas, I asked myself one day what might happen if I tried to depict all this in a Venn diagram. At the very least, it will be a clean, visual way to depict the overlay of these three dimensions of the gospel. But maybe it would reveal more. Maybe it would reveal some of the flattened, two dimensional, counterfeit kingdoms that are appealing and plausible to us because they almost get it right. Here’s what I came up with:

The three large circles represent the three dimensions of the gospel of the kingdom we have been talking about. The area in the center where they overlap is the gospel of the kingdom in 3-D. What quickly captured my attention were the three other areas where only two of the three circles overlap. Were these the counterfeit kingdoms? So I started to parse it out.

Starting at the top of the diagram, if someone were to believe in the inside-out kingdom of the heart and also live in the upside-down kingdom in their community, we could imagine a kind of Christianity that believes in the essential evangelical doctrines and flourishes among the poor and the marginalized. If this kind of Christianity were to be weak on the forward-back kingdom of God renewing this material world, we could imagine that this community would tend toward separatist impulses. They would seek to live out a born-again faith, in the context of a community of the weak and the poor, but would tend to see the material world as something to avoid in order to prevent contamination and remain pure. This is what I labeled a “separatist gospel.”

If someone were to live in the upside-down kingdom in terms of their community and have a “forward-back” outlook for the future where God’s future of healing and restoration and justice is sure, we could imagine a kind of Christianity that would be activistic in its work for and among the poor. It would likely have a very firm belief in “progress” as the overall arc of human history. If this kind of Christianity were to be weak on the inside-out kingdom of God where our individual salvation comes by faith in Christ alone, we could imagine this community having liberal, mainline tendencies. They would be advocates for the poor and activists in addressing a variety of social ills, but may see the inside-out gospel as dogmatic and exclusive. This is what I labeled the “Social Gospel.”

(Note: Unlike the other parallel phrases “separatist gospel” and “triumphalist gospel,” I am using “Social Gospel” as a more technical term – hence the capitalization – from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the U.S. That is to say, “social” is not being used here simply as an adjective to modify “gospel” in the way “separatist” and “triumphalist” are. The gospel is necessarily social in ways that it is not necessarily separatist or triumphalist.)

Finally, if someone were to believe in the inside-out kingdom in the heart and also embrace the forward-back kingdom that the entire material world is being made new, we could imagine a kind of Christianity that is evangelical in its beliefs about personal salvation and also engages the world and its needs in every sphere of life. If this kind of Christianity were to be weak on living life in the upside-down community and developed apart from the poor and the marginalized, we could imagine this kind of Christianity becoming highly individualistic and triumphalistic. Its impulses could easily lead to a willingness to use the means and methods of worldly power and wealth to achieve its ends. This is what I labeled a “triumphalist gospel.”

(One could rehearse a similar exercise for even more flattened counterfeit versions of the gospel where only one of these three dimensions is affirmed and developed. I won’t do that here but would be curious to see what that might yield.)

Where would you locate your own theological or denominational tradition? At the risk of over-generalizing (an always terrifying and often ill-advised risk!), we might say that some Pentecostal, non-denominational and more fundamentalist denominations tend to fall into more of a separatist gospel. Liberal mainline denominations and other more progressive traditions tend to fall into more of a Social Gospel. And Reformed, neo-Calvinist and neo-evangelicals (by which I mean the tradition that traces back to figures like Billy Graham, Harold John Ockenga, Carl Henry, etc) tend to fall into more of a triumphalist gospel. To the degree that these admittedly very broad brushstrokes get at some truth, it would be interesting to consider how articulating a three dimensional vision of the gospel could serve as a corrective for all of our traditions.

For us here at Until Zion, we situate ourselves within the confessional, Reformed, neo-Calvinist, evangelical tradition. We would make the case that our blindspot has tended to be to neglect life with the poor and marginalized in the “upside down kingdom.” As a result, the specter of the “Triumphalist Gospel” has haunted our tradition and remains a great danger, both in Reformed circles and in American Evangelicalism at large. Embodied life in real community with the poor and marginalized has largely been underemphasized in many of our experiences. Our theologies have largely been forged apart from the experience of the very people whom Jesus calls blessed. Our churches have tended to become communities made after our own social and economic image that socialize us into the ways of a kingdom (the American Dream?) other than the kingdom of God where the way up is the way down, the poor are filled and the rich are sent away empty, the weak are lifted up to shame the strong – where the first are last and the last are first. We believe that to more faithfully behold and embody the 3-D kingdom of God today, we must recover a commitment to an ecclesial life that socializes us into the ways of the upside-down kingdom so that together we might begin to see just how high and deep and wide is the love of God in Jesus Christ.


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