Directions in Evangelicalism, Part 4

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The Gospel According to Tim

Historically, evangelicals have understood the gospel to be about Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. Sins need to be forgiven because they are an affront to God’s justice. On the cross, Christ assumed the sinner’s guilt and suffered the sinner’s penalty, thus satisfying the demands of God’s justice. Upon saving faith, God credits the righteousness of Christ to the sinner, rendering that sinner completely just in the sight of God. Because of this double imputation, God is able to be just and to justify the sinner.

Recently, some evangelicals have begun to revise and expand this understanding of the gospel. Without overtly denying personal guilt, double-imputation, or individual justification, they have begun to insist that the gospel includes more—perhaps much more.

In the last essay we examined one evangelical who has begun to re-envision the gospel along these lines: Scot McKnight, who teaches in an institution that represents the evangelical Left. In the present essay, we shall look at the ideas of Timothy Gombis. Gombis is a professor at Cedarville University, an institution that is usually identified as conservative evangelical and, until recently, would have identified itself as fundamentalist.

Gombis has published an article (originally in the ACT 3 Review 15.3:117-128) entitled “Racial Reconciliation and the Christian Gospel.” This article has been picked up and distributed by advocates of New Perspective theology, for example at “The Paul Page,” which advertises itself as “dedicated to the New Perspective on Paul.” The site also distributes several of Gombis’ other articles.

As the article’s title implies, Gombis is concerned with racial reconciliation and, indeed, with reconciliation of all types. By “racial reconciliation” he means,

Seeking to foster fruitful community life across racial and social boundary lines—lines of division that seem to be “normal” in some sense, but have been perverted by Satan and human sinfulness, so that communities do not regard each other with respect and dignity, seeking mutually fruitful relationships, but with suspicion and fear, which lead to exploitation and manipulation of all types.

We might quibble with this definition (do “communities” ever “regard each other,” or is this an activity of individuals within those communities?), but that is not the question at hand. For the moment, let us suppose that we all favor racial reconciliation, more-or-less as Gombis describes it. The question is, What is the relationship between racial reconciliation and the gospel?

Gombis gives a very clear answer to this question: “rightly grasping the gospel entails a commitment to reconciliation of all types—including, perhaps most specifically, ethnic, or racial reconciliation.” Later he adds, “racial reconciliation is not simply something nice that Christians should be doing, a sort of add-on to the gospel—nice, but not necessary. It is at the very heart of the gospel.” He argues that since reconciliation is the gospel, then “racial, or ethnic reconciliation … provides a perfect arena to manifest and live out the reconciling grace of God.”

How does Gombis arrive at this position? In the first place, he insists that the gospel “is not the proclamation that God is saving individuals and giving them a heavenly destiny.” Rather, the gospel is the announcement of the arrival of the kingdom of God. The kingdom message means that God is reclaiming the world, beginning with a redeemed people, and that this people “will manifest in their social practices” the very life of God on earth. This vision of the gospel arises from Gombis’ reading of the biblical storyline. In the biblical story, God created all things perfect, so that perfect harmony existed between the Creator, human beings, and the creation. When Adam and Eve sinned, this harmony was disrupted. Each human being’s relationship to God, to other humans, and to the created order was broken.

God set out to reclaim His creation from sin. First, He chose to work through Abraham and national Israel. God intended Israel to be a new society, displaying restored creation and acting as His agent to redeem other nations. Israel, however, saw its privileged position as a mark of superiority, confused election with ethnicity, and despised the nations. Israel “shut herself off from the nations, and adopted an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ approach. Israel demonized pagan nations, instead of exhorting them to turn to the Lord and enjoy his salvation.” Israel also adopted the behavior of the nations, neglecting the poor, the orphans, and the widows within its own borders.

In the midst of Israel’s brokenness, Jesus arrived and announced the coming of the kingdom of God. This meant that through Jesus, God was and is radically remaking society. This understanding of the kingdom implies a holistic vision of the gospel, one that encompasses the restoration of the broken creation itself. Within this holistic vision, Jesus challenged the social, ethnic, and racial assumptions of Israel. His challenge provides a model by which Jesus calls us to break down racial and social barriers and reverse our patterns of social sin. As we respond, our conduct demonstrates that the kingdom has actually arrived in power.

Gombis’ vision of the gospel is much broader than personal forgiveness. He states that “the gospel, therefore, has individual, corporate, and cosmic components. Neither one can be set over against the other, and to reduce the gospel to the message of individuals being saved by God and being given a heavenly destiny, is to tragically misunderstand the purposes of God in the world as set forth in Scripture.” Gombis is clear: “God has come to restore the three relationships—humanity to God; humanity to humanity; and humanity to earth. And, from the biblical story-line, we can see that the gospel involves all three of these relationships. To neglect any one of these is to have a truncated gospel.”

For his pièce de résistance Gombis turns to Paul—but not to Paul’s discussion of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. Instead, Gombis goes to Ephesians 2, which he asserts is an elaboration of what Christ is doing to make known His victory over Satan and the powers of evil. Specifically, Gombis infers that the gospel “includes the reconciliation of socially and racially alienated groups of humanity.” Paul, says Gombis, notes the pride and racial superiority of Israel in its attitudes toward the gentiles. Christ healed this racial division with Himself, so that both Israel and gentiles could become one in Christ. For Gombis, “this has direct reference to all racial distinctions and ethnic groups. Christ took upon himself all the racial hatred and division in the world, and in his death, he killed it.

For Gombis, the gospel of reconciliation includes both the reconciliation of humanity with God, and the reconciliation of racial and ethnic groups that were once divided. He says, “It is one work—a holistic work of reconciliation… . [T]he people of God do not merely possess the message of the gospel; the people of God are the message, embodying and making manifest the gospel of God’s reconciling all things under the loving Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

As we trace Gombis’ argument, we discover the following elements. First, the gospel is a story, and only by telling the whole story can one know what the gospel actually is. Second, the gospel is the announcement of the kingdom of God, and the kingdom includes social practices. Third, the gospel is personal, social, and cosmic, and the neglect of any of these elements leaves one with a truncated gospel. Fourth, the social element of the gospel highlights racial reconciliation as a major feature. Racial reconciliation cannot be separated from reconciliation to God.

Setting them side by side, we can see that the gospel according to Tim and the gospel according to Scot are pretty much the same gospel. Neither theologian overtly denies personal salvation or forensic justification. Both, however, insist that the gospel includes a personal and even an environmental or creational component. The task of evaluating this vision of the gospel awaits a further essay, but for the moment, one thing is clear. If Scot and Tim are correct, then the gospel that evangelicals have historically preached hardly qualifies as a gospel at all.

Rise, Crowned with Light

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Rise, crowned with light, imperial Salem, rise!
Exalt thy towering head and lift thine eyes.
See heaven its sparkling portals wide display,
And break upon thee in a flood of day.

See a long race thy spacious courts adorn,
See future sons, and daughters yet unborn,
In crowding ranks on every side arise,
Demanding life, impatient for the skies.

See barbarous nations at thy gates attend,
Walk in thy light, and in thy temple bend:
See thy bright altars thronged with prostrate kings,
While every land its joyous tribute brings.

The seas shall waste, the skies in smoke decay,
Rocks fall to dust, and mountains melt away;
But fixed His word, His saving power remains;
Thy realm shall last, thy own Messiah reigns.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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