I had an interesting online interaction this week about the connection between salvation and gospel. Well, I won’t to into the details because it was a private conversation. But it was one of those times when hearing something stated in a certain way helps you to clarify your own thinking.
The point that became clear to me in this interaction was the integral connection in Scripture, and in particular in the Pauline epistles, between the Gospel and the church. Take Ephesians for example. In the first half of the book Paul works the theme of salvation with special emphasis on how all have access to God and salvation through God’s grace in Jesus. This means that the walls dividing Jews and Gentiles are removed. There is no more cause for hostility between them because in Christ both Jews and non-Jews are part of the same body. Then, notice the transition from that first part of the book to the second part. Paul, after explaining the mystery of the Gospel, which for him is the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God as gentiles, he says:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-4)
A couple important things here. First, I think that the calling in verse 1 is what Paul has just described: the grace of God which saves and breaks down barriers. So this is another one of those moments like Romans 12, where Paul says, “In light of everything I just said…”. Second, verses 2 and 3 confirm that unity is the focus here. He tells us to be humble, etc to keep the unity of the Spirit. So the unity that the gospel makes possible by breaking down the walls of sin an alienation is also at the foundation of the life of the church.
The thought that I’m aiming at countering here is the idea or assumption that telling people about Jesus (“the gospel”) is one thing. If they respond, they are saved and come into relationship with God. Participation in the body of Christ (the church) is something else. I think we have tended to gospel and salvation as one thing, the main thing. Everything after that is treated as of secondary importance. Going to church is not necessary for salvation, we say, so we put less emphasis on it. We don’t deny it, we just don’t treat it as crucial. It’s basically optional. But there’s a very interesting response to this kind of thinking in Ephesians. You can’t treat the gospel and the church as if they were separate things. The message of the gospel is also the foundation for the ongoing life of the church.
Now, you might want to say something like, “Yes, but Paul is really talking about the spiritual unity of all saved people (‘the church’) here in Ephesians, not practical social matters. We are all united by the fact that one savior saves us.” However I would respond that this is a little too air-fairy for Paul. Right here in Ephesians 4 the reminder of our calling is followed up by very concrete life in the here and now, life facing each other, examples: Be kind, be gentle, be humble, bear with one another. Then as Ephesians continues into all six chapters, it’s just one practical thing after another and it’s all tied back into the message of the first three chapters. The gospel brings everything together in Christ, so of course the church, the one place where this message of renewal hits the ground running, should be a place that shows off that unity and harmony.
Here’s another way we can look at the gospel – church continuum: forgiveness. We Christians talk a lot about receiving God’s forgiveness. That’s “the gospel” . Wouldn’t it be hypocritical for us to be unforgiving people? Of course! But take it further. That forgiveness that we receive from God, if we follow its lead, produces a renewed kind of society, one which is founded on the gospel. I don’t just mean that it is founded on the gospel in the sense that everyone who is here, as it were, got in through the gospel. I mean that the church, to be consistent, should be a group of people who live according to the principles of the gospel. Forgiveness, renewal, unity, humility.
I really like the metaphor of DNA, which I picked up at a Vineyard church some years ago: the gospel is like DNA. It isn’t just the entrance point of the Christian life, it is an entrance point that, again like DNA, also contains the principles for growth in the new life.
So back to the original issue about the gospel and the church. I think that God’s intention was that these two always go together, and I think that attending to this will strengthen both. A church that lives the gospel will be a continual multi-faceted witness that transcends evangelism by words. A gospel that is conscious of itself as DNA will produce a much fuller and compelling and perhaps more biblically faithful invitation to Jesus.