Why the salvation gospel needs the kingdom of God

An integrated gospel merges two themes: kingdom of God and salvation.  Through his life, death, resurrection and return, Jesus brings the kingdom of God and saves people into it.  For several posts, we’ll ask: WHY should we integrate them into a single gospel?

Reason #1: They need each other.  Neither by itself is capable of carrying the full freight of apostolic preaching.  But when they work together, they preserve and advance everything Jesus taught us.

Consider: Jesus didn’t fit into the categories of his day. He was not the kind of Christ people envisioned.  His kingdom was not established in the way they hoped.  Even his own disciples saw no need for crucifixion, didn’t anticipate resurrection.  So Jesus had to work on two fronts: (1) Create new categories for his followers and (2) Keep them from squeezing him into their own presumptions.

It still happens today.  The gospel of Jesus is unlike any contemporary dogma.  But unwitting kidnappers sit in church pews.  They come eager to hear something that will confirm what they already “know” to be true and good.  When they hear it, the inner kidnappers snatches it and diverts it to his own devices.  In this way, the gospel leaks power.

How the salvation-only gospel gets kidnapped
Consider, for example, how the salvation theme often gets co-opted.  The kidnapper in this case is named “consumerism,” our ingrained habit of weighing every relationship as benefit derived versus cost paid.  When either end of the equation gets out of kilter – the benefit unattained, the cost too high, a better deal available elsewhere – the consumer is quick to move on.  It’s a perfectly reasonable way to buy cars and bananas, but what happens when a consumer comes to church?

The salvation gospel sounds at first like a great deal!  “Jesus died to pay for our sin so we can be forgiven and have life.  He does it all as a gift of grace.”  The benefit is endless.  The cost is free.  What’s more, this gospel is true, the promise shouted from the pages of Scripture.

But what happens when the consumer, persuaded with a salvation-only gospel, runs into discipleship commands of Jesus?  Consumers move on when the cost gets too high.  Tim Keller describes this phenomenon:

There have been many times in New York City that I have seen people make professions of faith that seemed quite heart-felt, but when faced with serious consequences if they maintained their identification with Christ (e.g. missing the opportunity for a new sexual partner or some major professional setback) they bailed on their Christian commitment.  They probable reason is that they had not undergone a deep world- view change.  They had fitted Christ to their individualistic world-view rather than fitting their world-view to Christ. ("Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs: Leading the Secular to Christ" - LINK)

How the kingdom of God helps
But what if the consumer had heard from the outset that Jesus is creating a new kingdom, that he is saved by grace into this kingdom?  This is a worldview-changing message!  The kingdom gospel prepares the consumer for the challenges of discipleship to follow. 

So an integrated gospel is both powerful and self-correcting.  Salvation by grace alone resounds as good news.  The kingdom of God ensures that the consumer is converted by to the gospel’s worldview, rather than converting the gospel to his own presumptions. Working in harmony, the integrated gospel creates converts and disciples, not just church consumers. 


What is the Integrated Gospel?

This blog is about pursuing an “integrated gospel.”  So what is the integrated gospel?  The backstory goes like this:

American Christianity – especially its evangelical wing – is bogged in a debate between two gospels, two versions of the “good news,” the central message of Jesus and his Apostles: The Personal Salvation Gospel vs. The Kingdom of God Gospel.

The Kingdom of God Gospel emphasizes the restoration of the whole creation into a perfect world, a place where God reigns as king, his will done on earth as it is in heaven.  It seems to have been the main message Jesus preached.  Read the Gospels and you’ll hear some version of it over-and-over again.  “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15). 

The Personal Salvation Gospel emphasizes the problem of sin and its solution: cross, atonement, justification, sanctification, all by grace received through faith.  It seems to be the main message in Paul’s epistles, especially Romans and Galatians.  The rediscovery of this gospel and its keynotes, grace and faith, sparked the Protestant Reformation and changed the Western world.  “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for all who believe” (Romans 1:16).

So Kingdom and Salvation are both buttressed with Bible.  But in books, sermons and studies, they’re increasingly pitted against each other as a series of rivalries: Jesus vs. Paul, Gospels vs. Epistles, cosmic vs. individual, big gospel vs. small gospel.

This tug of war plays out every week in churches all over America.  Some are keen to emphasize the Kingdom of God with only passing mention of personal salvation.  Such churches feature plenty of instruction on the ethical teaching of Jesus, social justice and loving thy neighbor.  But they get visibly nervous discussing sin, judgment and atonement.  This trend is noticeable in self-consciously “progressive” evangelical churches.  It’s also standard fare in mainline traditions that have been influenced by the Twentieth Century’s Protestant Liberalism movement.

Others are eager to preach the Gospel of Personal Salvation.  Such churches feature plenty of teaching on sin, grace and the Reformation’s crowning insight, justification by faith.  But an equally robust teaching on Kingdom of God is missing.  This trend is noticeable in self-consciously “conservative” or “Reformed” evangelical churches.

Granted, this scheme is over-simplified.  Kingdom folks believe in salvation and salvation folks believe in the kingdom.  But the polarity breeds two very different kinds of Christianity.  One is about living like Jesus taught, doing good and turning this world into a better place (Kingdom).  The other is about receiving forgiveness, battling sin within and going to heaven when you die (Salvation).  And never the twain shall meet.

Therein lies the problem.  Few, it seems, are putting these two together into one coherent story.  Sometimes it is (rightly!) suggested that both are the gospel, told from two complementary vantage points.  But rarely are they told together as one single gospel.  So what is the integrated gospel?  I don't think we know.


Welcome to "Integrated Gospel"

Welcome to my new blog project, Integrated Gospel.

What does the title mean?  I’ll unpack it more in a forthcoming post.  The teaser: Integrate means “to combine two things so that they become a whole” (credit to Mac’s Dictionary app).  So this is a blog about putting two things together, making a happy marriage of two big themes from the Bible, both sometimes referred to as “the gospel.” One theme focuses on the salvation of people, the other on the coming of the kingdom of God. 

If neither sounds familiar, come back; upcoming posts will explain.  Here’s the reason for this blog: Though salvation and kingdom of God are both called “gospel,” they are rarely combined so that they become a whole, rarely told as a single gospel.  More often, they’re told one or the other without each other, sometimes even nefariously divorced.  So this is an effort to put them together into a coherent whole, hence “Integrated Gospel.”

How this blog will work:

Focused theme.  This is not a blog about everything.  Meet me for happy hour, and I’ll come peppered with fresh opinions about politics, college football, British shoesthe infield fly rule and the newest theological dustups.  But those thoughts don’t need to be published here.  So this is just a blog about one thing.

Modest schedule.  Blogging experts say that if you want to build an audience, you’ll publish every day, perhaps several times a day.  Were I a professor, journalist or baseball bench coach, I’d write that often.  But my first priority is to be a full-time pastor.  So my pace will be 1-2 posts per week. To catch them when they come up, follow my Twitter feed or subscribe to the RSS.

Series.  Most of the posts will be part of longer series.  I’ll write one series at a time.  For example, the first series will be “Why we need an integrated gospel.”  I’ve got four reasons in the hopper, each coming in different posts.  Each post will be formatted like the title bar above: Post title and Series title.

Dialogue.  Finally, I want to create a conversation among our readers.  So I’ll monitor the comments and interact there regularly.  Please don't be shy.

That’s it for today!  I hope you’ll join me.