The Thistle

Our Gospel Is Too Small

Our Gospel is Too Small
by Rev. Scotty Smith

We need to realize how much more there is to the gospel than the glory of personal redemption. God has a much bigger gospel agenda.

One of my favorite things that I get to do in ministry is to teach a course at Covenant Theological Seminary called The Disciplines of Grace. This class exists as a mining excursion into the limitless treasures and radical implications of the gospel of God’s grace. Every time the Seminary offers this class, I show up as both adjunct faculty member and hungry student. To this day I still feel like I’m standing at the base of the Swiss Alps of the gospel wearing lederhosen, holding a gallon bucket in one hand and a teaspoon in the other trying to take it all in. The gospel just seems to keep getting bigger and bigger.

I believe this expedition will continue with joy forever in the new heaven and new earth—for it will be impossible to excavate exhaustively “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). I understand now more than ever why Paul tells us we need God’s power to “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ revealed in the gospel (Eph. 3:18–19). Only the Holy Spirit can free us from the ravaging disease of unbelief, and only in an authentic community of brothers and sisters in Christ can we hope to know more of the love “that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19). What is my gospel genealogy, and where is this story currently taking me?

In the fall of 1968, I walked onto the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) a new man in Christ toting very old baggage about God and his gospel. I was given faith to trust in Jesus as God’s Messiah and my savior as a high school senior at a viewing of a Billy Graham movie titled The Restless Ones. Then, God began relentlessly exposing and deconstructing the incomplete and outright destructive notions I had about him. The first book I read as a new Christian was Your God Is Too Small, by J. B. Phillips, a masterful exposé of the 10 most obvious false views of God the author had recognized among his contemporaries in Great Britain. I wish I could say that I immediately replaced bad images of God with only those shaped by a good understanding of the gospel. That didn’t happen for a while. Like many Christians converted during the Jesus people movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, my understanding and experience of the gospel was shaped primarily by three things: (1) do-more-try-harder models of discipleship, (2) pragmatic campus ministries, and (3) a fear-based eschatology. Thankfully, during my last semester at UNC I got my first clear glimpse of the gospel of God’s grace. Never would I have dreamt that a class in Greek at a state university would prove to be such a Trojan horse of redemption. That class freed me from a fear of languages and opened the floodgates of gospel paradise.

After the semester, my teacher, G. Wright Doyle, invited me to read through the Greek text of Ephesians with him. Moving through the first two chapters of Ephesians at a snail’s pace was more than my proud heart, man-centered theology, and performance-based spirituality could withstand. The Scriptures persuaded me that the gospel is Jesus plus nothing—grace through faith sovereignly given to people dead in their sins and trespasses by the God who chose them in Christ even before the creation of the world. Because of what Jesus accomplished by his life of perfect obedience and his substitutionary death on the cross, my efforts at trying to merit God’s favor were not only futile, they were fatal.

I was finally able to affirm the good news of personal redemption as summarized and celebrated in the sixtieth ques­tion and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. How are you right with God?

A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them, and even though I am still inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfac­tion, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obe­dient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart.

While studying Ephesians with Wright, I became “Reformed” before I had any clue about what Reformed theology is. When I went to seminary three years later, I learned the words, but I already knew the wonder. Though I was satisfied for years with seeing and savoring the legal rights and personal delights of the gospel for individual believers, I needed to see that there is so much more to the gospel than the glory of personal redemption. God has a bigger gospel agenda than simply fill­ing heaven with souls dressed in the perfect righteousness of Christ. Just listen to the opening words of Paul’s letter to believers in Colossae: “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth” (Col. 1:6 NIV).

I’m both enticed and challenged by the scope and hope of Paul’s vision of the gospel in this one verse. The apostle likens the gospel to a great horticultural presence which is spreading throughout the entire cosmos like fertilized kudzu. But unlike kudzu, the gospel doesn’t rob life—it redeems life, and thereby provides luscious, life-giving nourishment everywhere it grows and bears the fruit of the grace of God “in all its truth.” Paul’s gospel is certainly a lot bigger than the abridged, privatized version I championed for so many years.

He makes it clear that matters of the gospel include every­thing that matters to Jesus himself. Thus, still in the first chap­ter of Colossians, Paul writes of Jesus:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the suprema­cy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col. 1:15–20 NIV)

What a vision of the very personal and yet very cosmic Christ—a gospel that is about people, but also about so much more! Jesus is creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all things! Where is “this gospel” bearing fruit and growing? Not just everywhere there are people, but everywhere—period!

In fact, as Paul begins the Colossian epistle, I hear a clear echo of the charge given to Adam and Eve, our first parents: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…’ ” (Gen. 1:28 NIV). In Reformed theology, we call this the creation (or cultural) mandate. Though Adam and Eve didn’t even make it out of the garden before sabotaging their calling, Paul seems to be implying that we—their sons and daughters—are those through whom “this gospel” will eventually fulfill God’s original plan for this earth, which will be redeemed and restored and will be filled with the knowledge of his glory as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14). Because the gospel is true, God will one day delight in a people who are gathered from every single race, tribe, and people group and taken from every period of history as they live forever to his glory in the perfect society, culture, relationships, and worship of the new heaven and new earth. This will occur right here where we live today. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 NKJV).

Nathan L. K. Bierma captures the scope and hope of “this gospel” in his book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. He writes:

When we consider the full story of the gospel…we see a larger picture of the redemption Christ brought about, and we starve for the completion of it. The gospel stands on three legs, not one; Christ’s redeeming work was done to restore nature, culture, and human beings. Now that’s good news.

When we live in the hope of a big gospel, we see Jesus Christ not just as a serial intruder on people’s souls but the one in whom “all things hold together,” in the words of Colossians 1. All things—not just people’s hearts but the infrastruc­ture of nature, culture, and relationships. So the hope of a big gospel is not just going to heaven to be with God, but a vision of the new earth and the heavenly city as the place where God’s authority over all of life is made complete. Living in the hope of heaven means seeing glimpses of such a place already, and wanting more.

What are some implications of a bigger, three-legged gos­pel? It means that the ministry of “this gospel” will compel us to live and love with hope in every sphere of our broken world because Jesus has come to make all things new, not simply to make all new things. It means that if Reformed theology has simply given us new words but no wonder, then we aren’t really Reformed, we’re just informed. It means preaching the gospel of personal deliverance and living the gospel of com­munity development. It means thinking less about going to heaven when we die and more about living before we die as those offering the first fruits of a new heaven and new earth here and now. It means this and much more. Indeed, is your gospel as big as this gospel?

Rev. Scotty Smith recently retired as the founding pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee. Among his many ministry pursuits, he serves as an adjunct professor of practical theology for Covenant Seminary, and is the author of the books Objects of His Affection: Coming Alive to the Compelling Love of God, Reign of Grace: Restoring Broken Things, and coauthor (with singer-songwriter Michael Card) of Unveiled Hope. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Covenant magazine.