Every Christian I know agrees that the gospel is essential to Christianity. It is “the power of God to salvation” (Romans 1:16). We know the word gospel means “good news” but what is this good news really about? And what is salvation? Is it escape from earth, life in heaven, missing hell, having our sins forgiven, or inviting Jesus into my heart? Likely we’ve all heard one of more of these answers given to that question.
The problem is not that there is no truth in these standard, simple answers but rather that this minimal truth is inadequate, even peripheral to the correct biblical answer.
Mark’s Gospel begins with words that I frankly missed the first thirty years of my life: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Whatever the gospel is the record of this message is what the writer will give to his reader in the Gospel of Mark. (Of course, it is also to be found in the other three Gospels, which together give us the rich, full and truly robust answer to our question about the gospel of Jesus.) But Mark 1:1 is followed, only a few verses later, by Mark 1:14: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.”
A simple observation strikes me as profoundly clear, and deeply important, in these additional words. There is one gospel. That gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. But note that this gospel is the good news of the kingdom. The two, the gospel and the kingdom, are one and the same.
I grew up without ever hearing anything, at least so far as I can remember, about the kingdom of God. (The rare exception might have been my mother teaching her dispensational views of the kingdom, a kingdom which would only come in the time following Jesus’ return!) I certainly never equated the good news of Jesus with the kingdom! But I submit to you that apart from the kingdom of God there is no gospel, no good news.
My friend Professor William Abraham, a Methodist teacher of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, says there is a basic “logic” to real evangelism. This logic means that the gospel must have relevance and power for the present, not just for the distant future. The truth of this logic will only be seen when you take the gospel of the kingdom seriously.
My friend Professor Alan Streett writes:
The gospel must have relevance for the present and not only for the distant future. According to New Testament accounts, the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom (and not the promise of going to heaven) was the thrust of Jesus’ gospel sermons. It provided the rationale for evangelism. The words “gospel” and “kingdom” are so interconnected that the New Testament writers use the umbrella terms “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” 20 times to describe the good news of salvation (Heaven on Earth, Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 2013, 12.)
Alan Streett, in a magnificent, readable and imminently biblical new book, Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now, says that when the message Jesus and the apostles preached is compared with contemporary gospel messages [they] “are complete opposites of each other” (Heaven on Earth, 12). He adds, “A discovery of the kingdom of God and its relevance for today will revolutionize your life!” I could not agree more.
If you study the theme of God’s kingdom carefully then before long you will begin to see what we’ve missed in the church. And the correct concept of the kingdom of God has been missed by both Catholics and Protestants alike. The greatest theologians, and our most popular evangelists, have rarely taught the gospel biblically, at least in this way. It has been equated by some of our best thinkers with ideas and subjects such as heaven, the church, Israel, Christendom, democracy, socialism, communism, an ethical ideal, inward spiritual experience, Christ’s millennial reign, and the eternal state in the age to come. Alan Street writes, “No wonder there is so much confusion” (Heaven on Earth, 9). Yes, no wonder. If our teachers are so confused then maybe this is why the people are so terribly confused as well.
This confusion is so staggering that I do not believe I cannot overstate it. And for my purposes it is one of the chief reasons for our Christian disunity. Let me explain.
A few weeks ago I was sharing some precious time with Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP. Frank directs the evangelism and discipleship ministry of the Paulist Fathers, a Catholic order that I have enjoyed wonderful fellowship with over the last year. Frank and I were chatting about the kingdom of God and the church. We were also talking about preaching the gospel and how Catholics and Protestants could experience deeper unity in making disciples if they got the kingdom of God right. He said, in effect, “What we need to do John is announce the reign of Christ and then invite people to enter his kingdom through faith in him as Lord. When they have heard this call and entered his kingdom they will then be drawn by the Holy Spirit to embrace the Christian community. We need to leave this choice to God the Holy Spirit who will guide them as we invite them to enter the kingdom!” He is spot on. This is biblical thinking and this thinking and teaching will restore unity in the gospel. We must first get the kingdom right and then we can deal better with the church as Christ’s baptized community.
Tomorrow: More from Alan Streett’s magnificent new book, Heaven on Earth. I recommend that you purchase this book and then make it a matter of careful study if you wish to read a masterful, readable treatment of the kingdom of God. There are many great academic books on the kingdom, especially those of N. T. Wright, but there is no better simple, readable book than Alan Streett’s book, Heaven on Earth.