Some of you may know that I enjoy, over and above all other topics surrounding theology (at least for now), I enjoy discussion about the Gospel. I was exuberant to know that it was going to be made my High School’s theme of the year my Senior year, and I’ve been equally pleased about my church’s emphasis on the Gospel. In the last year my pastor preached through the book of Luke, which was refreshing as it’s often neglected in our circles that see Paul’s epistles as the center of the Biblical Canon. I wanted to share with you on this Christmas Eve, some of my recent thoughts on the gospel and Christmas.
Some of you will recall when Jason Regnier and I spoke in Senior Chapel on redefining the Gospel. Really what we meant by choosing a title like that was that we, as a church, as evangelicals, in America, need to be thinking about rethinking how we talk about the Gospel, and what Jesus and Paul really meant with it.
Briefly then, I just want to clarify what has already been written and said elsewhere, and in doing so, show how Christmas is not merely an introduction, or a bit of rising action, but an essential part of the Gospel.
First, what is not the Gospel. Most people in the American church understand the gospel along these sort of lines: God mad us. He is holing and loving. We sinned, God’s wrath is against us, but he sent his son Christ to die in our place and become our sin. If we believe in his death and resurrection, his righteousness becomes ours and we can escape this world to be with him in heaven when we die.
That is what I have called the personal salvation gospel, Scot McKnight has called it more technically the soterian gospel. Of course everything I just mentioned as part of the soterian gospel is biblical truth (sort of, the parts about imputed righteousness and the platonic view of escaping this earth is less biblical, but i digress…). The big point here is this is not what the New Testament means by Gospel. It is only part, and this overemphasis of personal salvation swallows a much larger and richer story about King Jesus.
This Salvation-centered gospel is what we’ve been “evangelizing” people with for many years now. Let me share with you a statistic in Evangelical American Churches–the people that mainly preach the soterian gospel. 90% of the children in these churches pray the sinner’s prayer and make a decision for Jesus, asking him into their heart, etc. By age 35, less than 20% of those who prayed the sinner’s prayer have anything to do with the Church of Jesus. Here is the fact. Since the emergence of the personal salvation gospel, people are leaving the church in record numbers. I have argued quite lengthily elsewhere, that this is because the personal salvation gospel is good at coercing children into making decisions, but not at making lifelong disciples of Jesus. Primarily because it asks the wrong question: Do you want to be saved from eternal hell? The question the Gospel is really asking is: Who do you say Jesus is? Just as Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And they knew that by answering “you are the lord, and messiah…” that meant life was now going to be different.
On the basis of 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel sermons in Acts, and the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, let me layout in brief the Gospel: The Gospel is the story of Israel coming to fulfillment in Jesus as Messiah–Jewish for King. The Jews of Jesus’ day were not waiting for God to send someone to get them into heaven and rescue them from earth, they were waiting for the second David, the ruler that would end Roman oppression.
How does this differ from the personal salvation gospel? The personal salvation gospel frames things in an individualistic, escape hell kind of way. The New Testament story of the Gospel is a story that comes to its fulfillment in the King Jesus, who will populate his Kingdom by saving a corporate body, a people of God, the now interlocked Israel and Church. If the Gospel is at its core fundamentally not about rescuing individual sinners, but rather a story that makes disciples, how can we see Christmas?
First, if the Gospel is the story of Jesus, then it follows that Christmas is indeed part of the Gospel. In the personal salvation gospel scheme, it would be just as well if Jesus had simply flown onto the cross. Ask yourself, for what you believe the Gospel is, does it matter if Jesus was born, or lived? Or does just the ending few chapters of the first four books of the NT all that matters? Christmas is the beginning of the story Gospel. If you think the gospel is about personal salvation, you might be puzzled about why Matthew begins his telling of the gospel with that long stuffy genealogy.
The genealogy has 3 main points. 1. Jesus is King-Jewish Messiah. 2. Jesus is a descendant of David. 3. Jesus is a descendant of Abraham. The Gospel, which is what Matthew is, is a declaration that Jesus is King, and the story of ho he became king. Genealogy in Jewish culture only mattered if you were royalty–this being confirmed by the presence of David, and with Abraham, this is the story of Israel, and really the world, because Abraham is classified as a proselyte–so a gentile.
What else is intriguing to me, and quite against the culture of the time, is the mention of 4 women. Each noted for what could be seen as sexual irregularity–setting the stage for Mary, the most irregular of all.
This is not an introduction that can be skipped over. Rather the genealogy in Matthew is an essential framework, a nutshell expression of the Gospel–as we’ve said, Jesus is King. At Christmas we are called to proclaim the Gospel story. This baby, son of Mary, is King, and Son of God. After 400 years of silence, God again comes to dwell with his people. Emmanuel. Matthew 2:1-12 is great here. Matthew is telling us about king Herod to say he is going down, and the son of Mary and Joseph is the reason why. Herod stews and plots, but he has completely failed to secure his rule. God’s promised Messiah will not be thwarted, and even when Rome’s cruelest torture is brought to bare on him, seeming to end his quest for Kingship, King Jesus shows this was the father’s plan all along. Through death, God has unleashed the Kingdom of life.
*Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright have been major influences for some of the thoughts in this blog. McKnight’s book “King Jesus Gospel” and Wright’s “How God Became King” are excellent.