At the very heart of the gospel is the fact that Jesus Christ died on a cross in our place for our sins, so that those who come to him in repentance and faith can be reconciled to God and find newness of life. That is certainly the minimum account that we find in Scripture.
But God’s work of redemption is more than just getting individual souls into heaven. It is about making the whole world right. It is about restoring God’s rightful rule on his earth. Of course that must always be incomplete and imperfect in a fallen world, but that is what his people should strive for: the Lordship of Christ in every area of life.
That is, believers should be taking seriously all aspects of life: the political, the social, the intellectual, the aesthetic, and so on. We are to be having an impact in all these areas. We are to be reclaiming planet earth for Christ and his kingdom. We are to be extending his lordship into every realm.
And this is not the old social gospel, where gospel proclamation to individuals was ignored for working in social areas, like prison reform or factory conditions improvement. Sure, those things would be the fruit of a holistic gospel message, but they do not replace the message of sin and salvation.
Both go together in other words. We both tell people that they are sinners in need of repentance, and we work to bring kingdom realities into a sinful world. And of course balanced Christians have always done this throughout church history: they have proclaimed the message, but they also demonstrated its reality in a very practical manner.
Christian missionaries always told people about what Jesus had done for them, and what this looks like in actual application. Thus they built clinics and schools and hospitals. Thus they helped women and children. Thus they worked to abolishing slavery and dealt with social ills like alcoholism and prostitution, and so on.
It was a whole gospel preached to the whole person, in other words. We evangelical Christians tend to miss this, and concentrate solely on getting souls saved – as important as that is. But we tend to neglect the fuller dimensions to the gospel.
Of course these thoughts certainly are not unique to me. A number of recent statements along these lines can be mentioned here. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says this in his book on biblical eschatology, Surprised by Hope: “The work of ‘salvation’ in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely ‘souls’; (2) about the present, not merely the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.”
We can easily become too heavenly minded, and forget all about our earthly mission. As Wright says in his brand-new volume How God Became King, the four gospels “are telling the story of the rescue of creation, not its abolition or abandonment.”
The kingdom of heaven is not just about “people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth. When Matthew has Jesus talking about heaven’s kingdom, he means that heaven – in other words, the God of heaven – is establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, but on earth as well.”
Biblical Christians rightly take seriously the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, but we also need to take seriously an earlier and equally important commission: the Cultural Commission of Genesis 1:27-28. As the late Charles Colson correctly put it:
“Understanding Christianity as a worldview is important not only for fulfilling the great commission but also for fulfilling the cultural commission – the call to create a culture under the lordship of Christ. God cares not only about redeeming souls but also about restoring his creation. He calls us to be agents not only of his saving grace but also of his common grace. Our job is not only to build up the church but also to build a society to the glory of God.
“Evangelism and cultural renewal are both divinely ordained duties. God exercises his sovereignty in two ways: through saving grace and common grace. . . . As agents of God’s common grace, we are called to help sustain and renew his creation, to uphold the created institutions of family and society, to pursue science and scholarship, to create works of art and beauty, and to heal and help those suffering from the results of the Fall.”
Such thinking not only goes back to the opening chapters of Genesis, but extends to the closing chapters of Revelation as well. There is an intimate connection between the original earth which God created, and the new earth which he promises to bring about. As Anthony Hoekema wrote in his 1979 volume, The Bible and the Future:
“The doctrine of the new earth is important for a proper grasp of the full dimensions of God’s redemptive program. In the beginning, so we read in Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth. Because of man’s fall into sin, a curse was pronounced over this creation. God now sent his Son into this world to redeem that creation from the results of sin. The work of Christ, therefore, is not just to save certain individuals, not even to save an innumerable throng of blood-bought people. The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin. That purpose will not be accomplished until God has ushered in the new earth, until Paradise Lost has become Paradise Regained. We need a clear understanding of the doctrine of the new earth, therefore, in order to see God’s redemptive program in cosmic dimensions. We need to realize that God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall.”
If all this sounds rather familiar, well it should. As Paul reminds us in Colossians 1:20, Christ seeks to “reconcile to himself all things”. All of creation is affected by the fall, and all of creation is meant to be reclaimed in Christ. As Marianne Meye Thompson notes in her commentary on Colossians: “Through the cross God does not simply deal with the situation of the individual, but undertakes to bring wholeness to the whole world. The predicament of humanity and that of the cosmos are intertwined: both are in need of being rightly reordered by God, and neither will be so in isolation from each other.”
Our salvation reunites us with God through Christ, and we all eagerly await our final homecoming. But in the meantime there is much work to be done – not only in evangelism and winning souls, but in reclaiming enemy territory and in seeking to extend Christ’s kingdom throughout the globe.
As James Peterson put it, “The kingdom of God is not primarily a raiding party to capture people and bring them back to the safety of the Christian community. It is a mission to transform the world into the kingdom fit for its king.” Norman Geisler had the same thing in mind when he wrote:
“What sometimes escapes Christians is the fact that the responsibility to love other persons extends to the whole person. That is, man is more than a soul destined for another world; he is also a body living in this world. And as a resident of this time-space continuum man has physical and social needs which cannot be isolated from spiritual needs. Hence, in order to love man as he is – the whole man – one must exercise a concern about his social needs as well as his spiritual needs.”
So let us pursue our Christian calling in a complete fashion, as we present a complete gospel to complete persons. This will take innumerable forms of course, whether working in mercy ministries, helping the poor, rescuing the unborn from slaughter, or a million other things.
But all of this is part of the whole gospel which we need to be both living and proclaiming.