The Ecology of the Gospel

By Michael Goheen, Director of Theological Education at Missional Training Center and Professor of Missional Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary.

When the Argentinian mission leader René Padilla addressed the important evangelical gathering at the Lausanne Assembly in 1974, he said there is “no use in taking for granted that we all agree on the Gospel that has been entrusted to us.” He believed the gospel had been truncated in various ways as it had been co-opted by various idolatrous cultural spirits: “The greatest need of the church today is the recovery of the full Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[1] His concern was that the gospel had been watered down in two different ways, and that this had diminished the full-orbed mission of the church. Some had reduced the gospel to the social message of Jesus and consequently had reduced mission to action for mercy and justice. Others had narrowed the gospel to eternal salvation in heaven after death and thus had confined mission to evangelism. Both had grasped something of the good news but both had severely diluted both the gospel and mission.

Where does one start to elaborate the good news in the Bible? Surely we must start with the proclamation of the good news by Jesus himself. He opens his public ministry, as recorded in the book of Mark, with these words: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus does not stop to explain what he means by the kingdom. Why? Quite simply because every Jew was waiting for the kingdom to come. The Jews believed they were part of a long story told in the Old Testament that was waiting for a climactic ending. Their hope was nurtured by the books of Daniel and Isaiah 40-55 among others. They disagreed on how the end-time kingdom would come, who would usher it in, and how to live until it came. But they all believed God would bring history to its climactic conclusion and restore his rule over the whole cosmos. And one of the primary images of this goal of universal history was the kingdom of God.

Jews believed God had created the world “very good” and blessed humanity as his image with a rich social and cultural life in the creation. Adam and Eve had opened the gates of sin and ruin with their rebellion against God. God set out on the long road of restoration to heal and renew the whole of creation and the entire life of humankind. God had chosen Abraham and his descendants to somehow be a solution to the problem. Yet Israel now had succumbed to pagan idolatry and was sitting in exile in need of salvation themselves; the lifeguard God had sent to a drowning world was now itself part of the problem. But they had the promise of the prophets that God would not give up on his intention but would gather them back, renew them, and restore his rule over all creation and the entirety of human life. This would be accomplished by a Messiah and the Spirit. And so Israel waited for this climactic event.

Yet as they suffered beneath the beastly and oppressive rule of the Roman Empire the hope of many focused more and more on a Messiah who in the power of the Spirit would destroy Rome – and they seemed to have Daniel on their side (Daniel 7:9-14)! And so when Jesus announces the good news that the goal of history has arrived – “God is breaking into history in power to restore his rule over all of creation and all of human life” – the Jews were ready. But Jesus didn’t look like the kind of Messiah who would subjugate Rome. He looked more like a Rabbi and perhaps a miracle-worker but not the military Messiah who would rule a worldwide kingdom. Yet the Gospels interpret him as a King and his ministry as the coming of the kingdom. His mighty deeds were God’s healing power at work giving windows into the kingdom of God (Luke 7:22). “If I cast out demons by the power of God the kingdom has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). He sure didn’t look like what the Jews were expecting.

But when Jesus is crucified it seems clear that this cannot possibly be the Messiah or the long-awaited kingdom. Rome had crushed him. Neither did the resurrection of one man in the midst of history make sense (cf. Mark 9:9-10). None of this conformed to Israel’s expectation (Luke 24:13-24). Yet quite surprisingly forty days later Peter, who himself certainly expected a violent inauguration of the kingdom (Luke 22:38; John 18:10) and who was no doubt utterly confused when Jesus gave himself up to die, proclaims at Pentecost that the last days had arrived (Acts 2:17). The end time had been ushered in through an utterly unexpected and astonishing way – by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:22-36)! Paul would be the New Testament author who would reflect most deeply on the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus as part of this good news of the kingdom. As a Rabbi he struggled to make sense of these events. How could they be interpreted in terms of the Old Testament hope of the coming of the kingdom? For Paul these events were the hinge of cosmic history. The death of Jesus had defeated sin, evil, demonic power, and all its miserable consequences. The resurrection was the inauguration of the new creation, the kingdom of God that would one day fill the earth. The Spirit was poured out to now give this new life as a foretaste in anticipation of the day when God’s rule over his creation would again fill the earth. Until that day, the church is sent out to embody the end of universal history, the good news that the kingdom has come, and invite others into it!

The gospel invites repentance and faith, and if we believe that in Jesus God is restoring every corner of creation and we align themselves with this, we enter a big story that began in creation and will reach its goal in the kingdom. And more, we are summoned to be part of the renewed humankind that will inhabit the restored creation at the end of history. Until then we embody that good news with our corporate and individual lives, demonstrate it with our deeds, and announce it with our words. Put simply: to embrace the gospel in faith means that we are part of the true story of the whole world and that we are called to the holistic mission of making known the gospel of the kingdom. Gospel, story, missional people – these belong together and rightly inform one another if one follows the lead of Scripture.

But there is one more aspect we must add: a missionary encounter with culture. Throughout the biblical story God’s people are chosen to be a people who embody the end of history for the sake of the nations. That is its vocation and mission. In the Old Testament Israel is set in the midst of the idolatrous ancient near eastern nations. Instead of being a light they are overcome by the pagan darkness; instead of being distinctive showing the rest of the nations what being human is all about they become like the nations serving the same death-dealing idols. When Jesus sends his people in the power of the Spirit to live in the midst of the nations the problem becomes much more intense. How are God’s people to live in the midst of the idolatrous nations of North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and so on?

The missionary calling of God’s people summons us to not be conformed to the world (Romans 12:2; cf James 4:4). We are to be a distinctive people who embody God’s creational design for human life for the sake of the nations. As it relates to all human cultures that serve other gods, it means embracing the good gifts of each culture and rejecting the idolatry that twists it all. It is only as the church embodies the life of the kingdom, demonstrating the justice and mercy of the kingdom on behalf of the victims of cultural idolatry, that its evangelistic words will carry weight.

We might speak of the ecology of the gospel. Ecology is a branch of biology that studies how a variety of organisms are closely inter-related with one another. To understand any one you must see how it is embedded in a web of relationships. To understand the gospel one must see an ecology of at least four components: gospel, story, missional people, and a missionary encounter with culture. One cannot understand any one of those without seeing its integral connection to the other three. The gospel draws us into a story of cosmic history in which God’s people have a missional vocation to make known God’s redemptive work as a distinctive people amidst the idolatrous cultures of the world.

[1] René Padilla, “Evangelism and the World,” in Let the Earth Hear His Voice: International Congress on World Evangelization, Lausanne, Switzerland (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1975), 144.