It has long been the preoccupation of many in our own city, archbishops and Sunday School teachers, Christians in every walk of life and those in full-time ministry. I can’t help but think of John Chapman. Through the centuries and all over the world today, men and women have been enthralled by the gospel, the message of God’s own Son, the Christ of Israel, who died for our sins and was raised to set in the right with God those united to him by faith.
Our basic stance in the world is determined, not by what we are against, but by what we are most radically for, and for that’s the gospel of the world’s only Saviour and Lord. Historians and sociologists have often observed that evangelical Christians are characterised by a commitment to the priority of preaching the cross of Christ, to the priority of evangelism. We might be involved quite legitimately in a myriad of things, but the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen is the only way loved yet lost men and women can be saved in the midst of a lost world. And for that reason it has a priority – a clear and explicit priority – over all the other things.
This commitment transforms every aspect of life, including the practice of ministry. We have a perspective on the world, on culture and on our local community which flows out from the gospel. All of it stands under judgment and in need of redemption. The Christian hope is of ‘a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells’ (2 Pet. 3.13). It is of a numberless multitude from every nation, tribe and language (Rev. 7.9-10) gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb (the saving work of the Christ continues to be relevant even when all things have reached their fulfilment). Our task is not to redeem the world, the culture or the city but to proclaim Christ so that men and women enmeshed in the world, the culture and the city might share the redemption God has prepared for his people.
We have a perspective on church which flows out from the gospel. We are the redeemed disciples of Christ who are ourselves the agents of salvation as we speak the gospel to those who are loved by God yet lost in sin. We gather as an anticipation and reflection of that great gathering around God’s throne of all those who have been bought with the precious blood of God’s own Son (Heb. 12.22-24). We are gathered by God’s Spirit around God’s word to encourage each other to live consistently as disciples of Christ – reflecting the self-sacrificial love which characterised all Jesus did and sharing that passion for the lost which drove him to the cross. Using the gifts which the risen and ascended Christ has given us by his Spirit we serve each other with the goal of church maturing to ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4.13).
We have a perspective on Christian theology and even theological education which is directed by the gospel. Theology is at its very best when it serves the explicit proclamation of Christ – telling men and women that in Christ and through his cross God has acted to save them from the judgment to come. Every doctrine is related to this critical centre which is also the leading edge of all proper theological endeavour. There is no God to talk about except the triune God of the gospel. There is no world to engage except that which stands under judgement and whose only hope is the gospel. The gospel reveals that human beings both deserve condemnation and are intensely loved by a righteous God. It is this combination of our need with God’s determined love and absolute integrity that makes the cross necessary. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs which in different ways expound truths at the heart of the gospel message.
A number of people have recently picked up Professor Richard Lints’ idea that the link between our theological convictions and our ministry practice is our ‘theological vision’. This is a very helpful way of explaining why we do what we do. Our various theological convictions (the entire and absolute truthfulness of Scripture, the sovereignty of God in creation, providence and salvation, the uniqueness of Christ as the true Son of God the Father who became one of us in all ways excepting sin, etc.) are refracted through a vision of what God is doing in the world and the part he has assigned us in that grand plan. The specific way we do things can be explained, and hopefully justified, by the theological vision to which we are committed.
Yet what is it that gives one theological vision legitimacy while calling another into question? After all, thoughtful practitioners of Islam could point to a thoroughly theological vision which explains their practice. So too Roman Catholics and I dare say many in mainstream liberal churches. We ought not to kid ourselves that those who support the practice of abortion or the concept of same-sex unions have no interest in theology or are unable to articulate a theological vision which justifies their choices in these areas. They are deeply committed to a theological vision which they are convinced mandates their activism in either or both these areas. Being able to articulate a theological vision is not enough in the end. The critical question is whether our theological vision is a genuinely biblical one.
The vision which drives our practice must not only be a theological vision but a gospel vision. The reason for this is simple. The theology of the Bible is profoundly gospel-shaped and so any vision faithfully derived from that theology must be gospel-shaped. The promise of Genesis 3.15, like all God’s promises (2 Cor. 1.20), finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ and what he has done. The end that has been in mind from the very beginning depends on the sacrifice of the cross and the victory of the empty tomb. Another way of saying that is to say the theology of the Bible entails a particular theological vision, a gospel vision. If the vision we articulate does not explicitly give a priority to making known what God has done in Christ – why the cross was necessary, what the cross achieves, how life must change because Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day – then it will be light years away from that which animated Augustine, Luther, Cranmer and his friends, Wesley, Whitefield, Simeon, Graham and Stott.
We are radically for the gospel because the gospel is the wonderful message of a salvation totally undeserved but fully and finally secured at great cost and offered freely to all who will turn to Jesus in repentance and faith. It is tragically easy for this gospel to be swamped by other concerns and commitments. So as a new year begins for us and for our churches, let’s ensure that our theological vision is a gospel vision. And then let that gospel vision open up for us new, creative and exciting opportunities to reach the millions in our city and beyond who need more than anything else the forgiveness and new life that is only found in Jesus.
Mark Thompson is the prinicpal of Moore College and head of the department of Theology, Philosophy and Ethics.