'The Selfish Gospel': Why salvation isn't all about me
Have you ever considered the possibility that the gospel that we preach is different from the one that Jesus himself preached?
As a teenager I went through a quirky phase where I was terrified that I hadn't 'become a Christian'. I had said a prayer giving my life to Christ multiple times, I had gone forward at several Christian events when they offered altar calls to become a Christian, but despite all of these actions and prayers I was deeply concerned that God hadn't noticed.
When I became a Christian I was expecting something to change, like a light switching on inside my head or a step change in my attitude. I wasn't sure what but I was convinced that something was supposed to be different when I became a Christian.
I think I said a sinner's prayer 12 or 13 times in the space of 18 months because I was so worried that nothing had changed! And the thing is, every time I heard a gospel presentation or I said a sinner's prayer I was directed towards the same great themes: that God created the world and loved the world, that humanity turned away from God and started sinning, and that because God loved us so much he sent Jesus to die for us so that we could be forgiven our sins, receive the gift of eternal life and enter into relationship with him.
These great themes are all true. When we include them in our gospel presentation we are not lying or misrepresenting the awesome gospel story. But have you ever stopped to think that there might be more to it?
In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, Tom Wright notes that most Christians 'remain satisfied with what is at best a truncated and distorted view of the great biblical hope'.
What in the world could that mean? Let's look at Mark 1:14-15: '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!"'
In this one line, Mark succinctly summarises the gospel that Jesus preached and, if you look at the core message, there is a much greater emphasis on the kingdom of God than on the forgiveness of sins - and actually, this holds true throughout Jesus' teaching in the gospels (see Matthew 4:23, Luke 4:43 and Matthew 24:14).
When Jesus preached the gospel he didn't simply preach the forgiveness of sins: he preached the necessity of repentance and the forgiveness of sins in light of the fact that the kingdom of God had arrived. The arrival of the kingdom is the 'good news' – the forgiveness of sins is simply a consequence of it.
And actually, if we step back and look at the entire body of Jesus' recorded teachings we see that Jesus was obsessed with the kingdom of God! It is the central focus of all of his teaching, the epicentre of Jesus' ministry – but when we preach the gospel we rarely mention it.
The thing is, to preach the gospel and leave out the kingdom of God stops the story short. It's like pausing the film before we get to the best bit! Because God doesn't just want us to repent of our sins and enter into relationship with him so that we receive the gift of eternal life and go to heaven. God wants us to repent of our sins and enter into relationship with him so that we can start bringing heaven to earth here and now. God wants each of us to build the kingdom of God on earth every day: to live for his values of love, justice and mercy and bring our world more in line with them.
We weren't saved so that we could float around in a Christian subculture eating quiche and drinking weak orange squash. We were saved so that we could build heaven on earth; so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God could be made known to the rulers and authorities – not just on earth but in the heavenly realms, for all space and time.
When we miss out the kingdom of God we truncate our gospel and the problem is this makes the gospel self-centred – a little selfish, if you will.
If we forget the kingdom of God then the gospel becomes all about us. About how much God loves us, about how he died for us, about he has forgiven our sins and wants a relationship with us. All of these things are true! God has addressed the most gracious, undeserved, loving gift to each of us. But he doesn't want us to hold onto that gift for ourselves: he wants us to build a kingdom with it on earth, for the benefit of those people who haven't yet received the gift.
If we truncate our gospel it becomes easy to forget that. As a Church we are the people who believe in the gospel and live it out. The gospel is our shared identity. If we forget the kingdom of God from it then the danger is that it goes missing from our identity as a Church. In The Selfish Gospel book I explore this problem in much more depth, particularly the consequences of it and what we can do about it.
As a teenager I kept trying to become a Christian because I was convinced that something was supposed to change, that I was supposed to feel different. The truth of the gospel is that when we
become Christians something is supposed to be different – but it's not necessarily a difference that
we feel immediately, instead it's the difference that we make in the world. We go from being self-centred, egotistical human beings to children of God who love others and pour themselves out in service of them.
If we truly want to embody that change then I firmly believe that we must embrace a gospel that fully emphasises the kingdom of God and its mission of transforming our world.
Freddie Pimm is a junior doctor working in West London. He attends St Albans, Fulham, where he preaches and helps lead students. He is a regular speaker at Soul Survivor's summer conferences. He is the author of author of 'The Selfish Gospel' (IVP), which is to be published on June 15 and is available to pre-order today.