A Scandalous Gospel, Part 2
In the previous article, we began to look at passages of Scripture that reveal we may not have believed enough. That we may have settled for a truncated Gospel, a Gospel with limits set upon Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
Yes, it is true that one can make the Bible say anything. You can find a verse and twist it to suit your purpose. However, it’s hard to keep your crooked story straight if you allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.
Throughout this series on Messy Dogma we’ve tried hard to do just that. We’ve used Scripture as our source of authority. But we’ve also done something else. We’ve attempted to remove our incorrect assumptions and the residual clutter of our inherited traditions.
And we’re discovering that the Message of Jesus is almost unbelievable in its scope, nigh inconceivable. That it truly is a scandalous Gospel.
This is the 15th article in our series on Messy Dogma. Our objective? To re-engage with the Message and Mission of Jesus. In this second of three parts, The Scope of Jesus Message, we look at several Scriptures that shed light on the almost unbelievable, inconceivable message of Jesus. If you’re just joining us, you’ll find it more helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
2634 words (c. 7 pages) = 25 minute read
After the famous words of John 3:16, Jesus said:
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17).
The word might in “might be saved” does not appear in the original and was added at the privilege of the translators. Thus, this verse does not imply a shred of doubt, as in “perhaps they’ll be saved.” Rather, it is a statement of divine intent just as we saw in Ephesians 1:10, “that is the dispensation of the fullness of times He might gather together in one all things in Christ.” Do we doubt that God’s purpose will be fulfilled in Christ? No!
Just as certain as we are that God’s Kingdom purposes will come to pass, does it not stand to reason that we can enjoy the same assurance here?
As an essential part of the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom purpose for creation that will be accomplished, “the world through Him will be saved.” Period.
1 Timothy 2:4-6
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all…” (1 Timothy 2:4-6).
The word desire in God “desires all men” is the Greek word thelō which is a derivative of the word thelēma used to describe God’s purpose or “will” in “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). While the word desire captures the emotive passion behind God’s intent; unfortunately, it’s easy to misconstrue the word desire and to take it to mean something less certain, like “wish.” We often read this verse like this: “God wishes that all men be saved.”
However, this does not convey the strength of this statement. Paul is declaring that “God wills all men to be saved.” It is a statement of what He purposes to do. In a similar statement of intent, Jesus said: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32). There’s no doubt that He will accomplish this.
Another verse, stated in the converse, just as powerfully reveals God’s will: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). It doesn’t say God wishes that none should perish; it says that God wills that none should perish.
So, Paul explains that God wills and purposes “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” and he backs this statement by saying: “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all…” (1 Timothy 2:5, 6). Paul’s outrageous confidence rests in the completed work of the Mediator, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom to secure it.
Paul also taught,
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men … looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us…” (Titus 2:11-14).
Paul again makes it clear that Jesus is Saviour to all men.
Hang on. Isn’t he saying, Jesus merely offered salvation to all men? That is, the gift is offered, but it is only received when we respond through repentance and faith?
This good question captures exactly the difference of opinion: that is, where those who feel the scope of Jesus’ message includes the salvation of all men differ from those who feel it is limited to only those who believe.
Is salvation merely offered to the world, or has God saved the world in Christ?
Those who believe the latter allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, pointing to the emphatic nature of the verses we’ve looked at above, especially statements like:
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
“He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him will be saved” (John 3:17).
Perhaps the next verse might adequately explain the shift in thinking on this subject, and take into account the role of one’s response to the message.
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
For many years, I understood this verse as follows: the only way to the Father is when, having heard about Jesus, we believe in Him.
Sounds spot on? Yes? However, listen to the stress I was adding to it…
The only way to the Father is when, having heard about Jesus, we believe in Him. I was stressing one’s response to this awesome truth, not the truth itself.
Now I think of it like this:
The only reason we are reconciled to the Father is through Jesus’ completed work … full stop.
You see, I no longer view this as a statement of exclusion, but a statement of purpose. Jesus was actually speaking about His redemptive purpose in this passage and in this verse, states that because of His completed work, He is the way back to the Father. He adds no qualifiers, as I once did. The implication? He is the only way back to the Father for everyone … yes, everyone is included. Yes, there is no other way to God; Jesus is that way. And because He is that way, for everyone, everyone will be saved.
In other words, Jesus’ completed work has saved all of mankind, whether they have heard of Him or not, whether they receive or reject Him.
Jesus’ sacrificial work is complete.
Of course, if they wilfully reject Him, they’ll face His wrath, His righteous displeasure, in remedial post-mortem chastisement. If they haven’t heard of Him, Paul taught that the Gentile would be judged by the basic moral law of conscience (Romans 2:14-16) and the Jew by the Mosaic Law (Romans 2:17-24).
Too often, however, I think Christendom is guilty of putting Jesus in the way of Father God.
Our message often seems to position Jesus as blocking the way—a hindrance to truth-seeking, one who prejudicially gives life on condition of performance. Our message is often contradictory: God saves by grace not by works (Ephesians 2:8, 9), but unless you do these works (repent, believe, be baptised, etc.), you’re not included. Yes, we’ve redefined these actions as the means of grace to work around the contradiction, but again, this is extra-biblical tap-dancing.
I think we can, if we’re not careful, reduce Jesus’ outrageously generous invitation to run into Father’s arms, freely and expectantly, into numerous hoops that must be jumped through, grades that need to be attained, behaviours that need to be finely tuned … nothing short of, well, typical religion.
To be clear; yes, unless we repent and believe, we cannot experience God and the fullness of His desire for us in this life. Unless I repent from my self-centredness and through faith, align with the King, I cannot embrace His Kingdom and I cannot enjoy its virtues, so wonderfully pictured by the words, “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Unless I respond to Jesus’ message by repenting of my self-seeking bent and start making godly choices fuelled by my active trust in Him, I will remain enslaved to my crippling self-preoccupation, and bound by the systems of this world, I’ll continue to suffer the opposite of God’s Kingdom virtues: shame, conflict and despair, and much more.
And yes, unless we repent and believe, we will face His angry displeasure after we die. And this is, without question, an unspeakably grievous encounter.
However, our responsive act to His message (repentance and faith) is not nearly as significant as His redemptive act to ultimately save us.
And as grievous as God’s wrath is, it is not unjust; it is certainly not unending torture, as pointed out in earlier articles.
This returns us to an important point about much of the content of Jesus’ teachings.
Matthew 7:13, 14
Jesus taught about the “narrow gate” saying the “way that leads to destruction” is broad and well-travelled while the path that “leads to life” is “difficult … and there are few who find it.” Despite the fact that Jesus did not discuss the afterlife in the Sermon on the Mount, and that His discourse is powerfully focused on our actions and behaviour in this life, we’re conditioned to make the “narrow gate” about getting to heaven. We’ve imported into these chapters a preconceived idea.
In the context of this manifesto on the Kingdom message (Chapters 5-7), Jesus compared two divergent life-orientations in Matthew 7:13, 14. On the one hand, He defines the easy, thoughtless, self-seeking path chosen by many who seek to preserve or indulge or advance their self-interests. This path is the popular default choice but leads to destruction; enslavement to our own crippling self-centredness and the suffocating, life-sucking systems of this world.
On the other hand, He defines the dedicated, up-stream, Kingdom-seeking path chosen by the few, characterised by the Beatitudes, who choose to deny their self-indulgences, and defect from the dominating systems that oppress us. This path leads to life as God intends for us on earth.
In tragic irony, I think too much of Christendom has settled for a narrow gospel despite Jesus’ magnanimous redemption plan and His love that knows no limits; a message that we’ve made exclusive and elitist even when God’s grace is overwhelming inclusive and astonishingly universal; a gospel we’ve muddied with a thousand petty arguments when we ought to be demonstrating the divine compassion and justice of God; a message we’ve increasingly pitched to tickle the ears of those already ‘included,’ the spiritually fat and flabby, when we have a message that offers hope and liberation to all—including the fat and flabby, who need to be set free from addiction, meaninglessness and boredom.
But didn’t Jesus say we must be born again?
When a Pharisee named Nicodemus arrived under the cover of dark to soften up the ‘competition,’ he was in for a cold shower. Jesus cut through the facade and said: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Today we use the word “born again” incorrectly as an adjective to define a ‘real Christian’—another horrid church-world label to distinguish the in-crowd from the out-crowd. And we’ve also turned it into a noun that refers to the salvation experience; that is, that moment in time when one gets saved.
But this is not the way Jesus used it.
He used this metaphor of childbirth to say to this so-called expert of religion, “You really don’t know a thing. You’ll need to go back to the beginning and re-learn all that you know if you’re even going to begin to grasp what the Kingdom of God is.”
Jesus continued to press this home in verse 10 by saying to Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?”
Like Nicodemus, many born-again Christians have a lot of unlearning to do if they hope to fully grasp the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. This was certainly true for me.
Colossians 1:19, 20
For it pleased the Father that in [Christ] all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.”
A revelation of the Father-heart of God opens our hearts to the glorious Gospel message. Father God has, in Christ’s completed work, reconciled all of creation to Himself. We, who have received Christ’s life now, are the first fruits of Father God’s all-consuming, all-pervading, all-reaching redemption plan.
Indeed, Paul calls Jesus the “firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Believers are called the “first fruits of His creatures” (James 1:18).
The concept of firstborn or first fruits is a deeply biblical idea. A first fruit refers to the pledge of the whole. Paul alluded to Leviticus 23:9-14 when he reminds us that “if the first fruit is holy, the lump is also holy” (Romans 11:16), a passage in which he was discussing the “reconciling of the world” (v. 15).
As Father God reconciles all things to Himself, should we not anticipate second fruits? Those who have not received Christ in this age?
And get this.
If we are the first fruits of His creatures, and the first fruit is holy to the Lord, then so too is all of creation by virtue of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice.
What’s the key point to ponder?
Again, take the time to re-read these passages in your Bible. Allow yourself to read them in a new light. Let their claims reach your heart and renew your mind. Believe. Believe in a Gospel of Christ’s complete sacrifice. His unbelievable grace. His inconceivable mercy. A gloriously scandalous Gospel.
We could sum up this section as follows…
Think of these three statements that many Christians believe:
- God wills to save everyone.
- All-powerful God is able to accomplish His will.
- However, many will not be saved.
If you accept 1 and 3, then you must reject 2. God wants everyone saved but since many won’t be saved, then God’s will is trumped by man’s free-will. Man’s free-will to damn himself is greater than God’s power to save him.
If you accept 2 and 3, you must reject 1. God has determined that only some will be saved and that most will be damned. Therefore, God never willed for everyone to be saved in the first place; which crudely means, He created the majority of mankind for damnation.
If you accept 1 and 2, you must reject 3. God wills all to be saved and has the power to accomplish His will.
Too simple? My children get it. Maybe that says a great deal about me?
Where we’re going next?
In the rest of this series, we are going to continue our climb back to a fresh understanding of Jesus’ message and how we apply this in our lives and ministry today. However, we’ll devote one more article to answering the questions that often arise at this time, like: “Are you saying everyone will be saved, regardless?”, “What about a person’s free will?” and “What’s our motivation then for sharing Christ?”