A pastor friend recently remarked that he didn’t understand when people said we should “live the gospel.” We could live in light of the gospel, he said, but he didn’t think we could live the gospel. I have personally used the phrase “live the gospel” many times, and it quickly occurred to me that the reason it makes sense to one of us and not the other is that we have a different definition for what the gospel is.
The meaning of the word gospel, in contemporary English, is good news. While my friend and I would both agree that there are ultimately many aspects of the gospel and much that is good news, we each have our one-sentence definitions, the aspect that we see as the heart of the message. For my friend, that sentence is “Jesus Christ came to save sinners.” While I certainly agree that Jesus did that and praise God for it, I think it misses the ultimate gospel. It mistakes the essential door to the gospel for the gospel itself, which is, in the words of Jesus, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15; cf. Matt. 3:2, 4:17).
Jesus spends much of his time preaching on the kingdom of God, either describing it through parables or setting a vision of what it looks like to live as kingdom people (i.e., the entire Sermon on the Mount). And when he preached “the gospel of the kingdom,” he followed through by showing the kingdom, “healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matt. 4:23), thereby working against the ancient curse before everyone’s eyes. For us to “live the gospel” is for us do the same thing.
Mind, I don’t mean to say that we can do miracles; that may or may not be in the abilities with which God has gifted each of us. However, we can be about the kingdom by being intentionally opponents of brokenness and evil in our world. Therefore, we can be about healing the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, being good stewards of creation, and promoting all form of goodness, truth, and beauty in our current age. Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen write,
When we grasp that the salvation of the kingdom restores the creation, and all of it, we see that witness to God’s kingdom is as wide as creation. Witness will mean embodying God’s renewing power in politics and citizenship, economics and business, education and scholarship, family and neighborhood, media and art, leisure and play. It is not just that we carry out evangelism in these areas of life… It means that the way we live as citizens, consumers, students, husbands, mothers, and friends witness to the restoring power of God.”Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story
Anything that works against the curse is a work permeating this current world with that of the kingdom. In that way, there can hardly be a more kingdom-focused desire than the words of the traditional Franciscan prayer:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
I must make clear at this point, lest anyone think I am overemphasizing works, that I believe Jesus’ work of atonement is accomplished, and we can do nothing to save ourselves but repent and have faith in Christ. I’m not arguing against the glory and profundity of that essential truth. We do not enter the kingdom of God without believing in the saving work of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, when Paul reminds the Corinthians of “the gospel I preached to you,” (1 Cor. 15:1) he begins with “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (15:3) before moving on to Christ’s resurrection and many points of kingdom-focus, including the overcoming death, dominion, and all other enemies.
However, those who have been saved by Jesus are left with a common call: be citizens of his kingdom in our present world. Our faith is spilled out in our actions, James tells us, specifying such things as provision to the naked and hungry, and without them is dead (Jas. 2:17). Such actions are not in an attempt to save ourselves, but to be sanctified into kingdom people and be ambassadors of Jesus’ kingdom in our current world, creating a picture of the new order breaking in where such suffering won’t exist, and which Jesus will consummate when he comes again. N.T. Wright tells us,
“The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring forth real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation even in the midst of the present age. Not to do so is at best to put ourselves in the position of those Second Temple Jews who believe they had to wait passively for God to act–when God has acted in Jesus to inaugurate his kingdom on earth as in heaven. At worst, not to bring forth works and signs of renewal is to collude, as gnosticism always does, with the forces of sin and death.”N.T. Wright, “Jesus is Coming–Plant a Tree!” in Surprised By Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues
Therefore, let us live the gospel–live the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus in his first coming and brought to completion by his next. May we do “all such good works as [he has] prepared for us to walk in” (BCP), painting a picture of that world for this world to see.
(Cover image: Vincent van Gogh, The Sower [Sower at Sunset], 1888)