The Penultimate Gospel
Did Jesus die exclusively for me?
Jesus’ sacrificial death for the exclusive benefit of the individual believer is regularly reinforced within contemporary Christian circles. Through the lyrics of popular children’s songs like Colin Buchanan’s, He died upon the Cross: ‘He died upon the cross, For me, for me, for just for me’, or through sermon expressions, such as, ‘If you were the only person in the world Jesus would have died for you’, the exclusive human orientation of the gospel is subtly, albeit unintentionally, reinforced.
In their well-intentioned eagerness to make the gospel more appealing, those who present the gospel in this manner, give the impression that human blessedness is God’s supreme goal in the gospel. Regrettably, the subsequent self-oriented thinking, praying, and living of many Christians exposed to this penultimate gospel reveals that this flawed message is hitting its mark.
Why do I call it a penultimate gospel? Because, in reality, it represents a form of good news that, colloquially speaking, gets off the train one station too soon. It is a message that has as its primary destination human happiness (either worldly or heavenly); a message that ignores or diminishes the true and the final goal of the gospel, God—his kingdom, his honor, and his glory!
Now, let me be clear, I am not claiming that Jesus dying on the cross to redeem individuals from the consequences of sin is not valid—not at all. But I am suggesting, that any such assertion of ‘Jesus is dying exclusively for me’ should be carefully contextualized against the backdrop of the ultimacy of God’s Kingdom. If Jesus’ death for me is not conditioned by and set within the context of God’s Kingdom and its universal God glorifying focus, this ‘me’ focus easily leads to the practical subversion of the true gospel.
Disturbingly, the subtle distortion of the Gospel’s primary focus remains unnoticed by many rank and file Christians, just as it receives little critique from the gatekeepers of the faith. It seems the watchmen are more concerned defending traditional confessional truths against technical errors, rather than paying attention to the nefarious effects of methodology on Christian belief. Could it be that such a subtle aberration has slipped under the doctrinal radar simply because of a smug reliance on time-honored orthodox truths, attended by a concomitant unwillingness to revisit them in the face of new cultural challenges?
As unbelievable as this might sound, I believe this drift toward the ‘me’ oriented gospel has come, in part, from an over-reliance on Christianity’s most accepted and valued doctrine, Justification. In allowing ‘my’ personal status of being justified (set right with God) to become the gospel in toto, the ‘me’ focus of the gospel is easily allowed to be reinforced–without substantive critique.
But, how could justification become distorted like this? Well, let’s look at it.
Every human at the core of their being, is aware that they are accountable moral beings conditioned by innately embedded divine laws. If they are truly honest, they will actually acknowledge they are sinners. This being the case, under the prevenient working of Gods’ grace, they will necessarily feel the deep need to rectify the moral disparity; a disparity between what they know is right and their lack of consistency with this rightness—in short, they want and need to be justified!
Naturally, those burdened are drawn to religious solutions; ways to be set right with the deity that holds them to account. To this end, human religion strives for the justification of the individual. Moreover, whatever the means of gaining this personal justification before ‘God’, the end is nearly always the same—temporal happiness and eternal security.
Traditional Catholicism advanced the notion that faith in Jesus, in association with religious works, would secure a person’s justification and hence a place in heaven. Protestantism, in exposing the inconsistencies within Catholicism, re-emphasized the New Testament doctrine of Justification by faith without any of Catholicism’s attending good works; thus establishing the view of justification embraced and endorsed by many Christians today.
However, whether Catholic, Protestant, or any derivative thereof, the fundamental orientation and goal of this form of the gospel (at least as it is popularly disseminated) remains the same; the justification of the sinner so he/she can be right with God and go to heaven.
The exclusive focus on justification, at least as it has been interpreted, oriented, and presented in many contemporary Christian circles, has shifted the primary focus of the gospel onto the temporal and/or eternal satisfaction of the human subject. It has neglected to view the offer of salvation in the wider matrix of the Kingdom of God and the commensurate loyalty and obedience required within it.
If not properly contextualized, this view of the gospel becomes a message that takes the penultimate truth of human salvation and makes it ultimate. Invariably leading to the prevalence of the subconscious view that God exists exclusively for me and my happiness.
To be sure, human deliverance, blessing, and happiness are significant benefits of the gospel, I do not wish to diminish that. But are they the gospel’s primary focus?
Human redemption must always be seen in the light of a larger context of God’s kingdom and the eternal manifestation of his glory. More than simply being about justification of sinners, the gospel represents the vindication of God, as these Psalms intimate, ‘For the sake of your name, O LORD, forgive my iniquity, though it is great’ Psalm 25:11 (NIV), and ‘ Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake.’ Psalm 79:9 (NIV)
More broadly than ‘my justification, the powerful work of Jesus vindicates and validates God’s kingdom purposes, setting right everything that human sin universally destroyed, the greatest of which is recognition of the supremacy of God (Christ) over all things, and the universal recognition of his glory.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at it in Ephesians…
In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will– to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment– to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:5-12 (NIV)
Here Paul contextualizes the gospel within the frame of God’s grand design. For Paul, the gospel is far more than the justification of sinners so they can get into heaven; rather it represents a divine undertaking of a cosmic scale with universal consequences oriented toward the revelation of God’s kingdom in all its glory—of which human salvation is a component.
Motivated by love, God’s sovereign initiative embraced sinners as sons, adopting them into his family; not merely for their own benefit, but as Paul says, ‘…to the praise of his glorious grace.’ He sets the forgiveness of sins and redemption within the context of God’s precisely timed grand design, supremely purposed to ‘…bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.’ Is this not a statement of the gospel’s ultimate aim?
Our election and redemption are not simply about ‘us’ getting a blessing or going to heaven, but are described as an integral component to God’s wondrous plan; a plan designed to invoke within those who have been saved by God’s grace, a disposition of worship through an obedient life–for the praise for his glory!
For Paul then, the ultimate aim of the gospel is the glory of God. If it were simply the justification of sinners, why then would he devote so much of his writing to encouraging Christians to live upright and holy lives to the glory of God?
Indeed, if you look at the majority of New Testament writings, you will agree. Paul understood the supreme goal of the Gospel as God’s glory, and any gospel that didn’t promote this supreme goal to its recipients falls short of the mark—it is a penultimate gospel!
However, there is an ironic twist to this message. When a person, who has embraced the salvation freely offered to them through Christ, and rightly offers their lives to God and his glory; they discover that all the things the penultimate gospel offers, but cannot deliver, are actually freely granted by God—in abundance!
Human happiness and blessedness are in actuality, the by-products of a life given over to God. Did not Jesus say, ‘But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’? Or again, ‘It is more blessed to give than receive.’? The greatest joy, happiness, and blessing a redeemed human being can experience is to be found in a life focused on God’s glory, given over to the advancement of his kingdom through obedient conformity to God’s will and loving devotion to others—in this true blessedness and happiness is found.
So, what shall we conclude: Did Jesus die exclusively for me? Well, he died for me. He died that I might have the penalty of my sins cancelled, the power of my sin broken, and the presence of my sin removed. He died that I might escape the futility of human self-indulgence and live my earthly life, loving both God and neighbor—for the glory of his name. He died that his kingdom might be the primary focus of my life and not simply my own pleasure. But, no, he did not die ‘exclusively’ for me.
Jesus did not die that I might seek my own temporal and/or eternal pleasure at the expense of his glory, no matter how it is dressed up doctrinally. To embrace such a view of the gospel makes the most wonderful message the world has ever heard , penultimate–short of the mark! To believe such a view of the gospel not only robs me of ‘true happiness’, but robs God of what he really deserves; eternal glory—the ultimate goal of the gospel!