Many of us have grown up with what could be called a two-chapter gospel:
- Chapter One: Fall
- You are a sinner in need of salvation.
- Chapter Two: Redemption
- Jesus died and was resurrected to be your personal savior.
While true as far as it goes, this gospel does not address what it means to be human in the first place, nor what our own personal salvation is actually for other than ourselves. It is a very individualistic gospel that focuses primarily on personal piety.
Many evangelical organizations’ Statements of Faith reflect this two-chapter gospel. They tend to say little about the doctrine of Creation other than as a set-up for the Fall. Likewise, the Christian is often left wondering if his or her salvation is for nothing more than telling others the same two-chapter gospel. There is often little regarding actual day to day living. Study mathematics? Work a job? Plant a garden? Create artwork? Write a book? Seek the good of the city in which you live? How do these things square with a two-chapter gospel?
Does being a Christian cause me to approach any other part of my life differently than if I were not a Christian? If I’m an engineer, should I think about the work of engineering any differently or should I just be ready to tell the guy in the cubicle next to me that he’s a sinner and Jesus wants to save him? If I’m a stay-at-home parent, does it matter how I educate my children, or do I simply need to be sure that they understand that they are sinners and Jesus wants to save them? If I’m a landscaper, a road worker, or a farmer, spending hours alone on the job, does my faith have any bearing on how I work with the earth, or am I not really fulfilling my Christian mission until after work when I can talk to somebody about Jesus? Does my being a Christian have any impact on how I choose to spend my money or free time? For that matter, does it inform my definition of “free time”? Does it inform where I should or shouldn’t live or my lifestyle choices? And what does my being a Christian have to do with anything outside of me? Does Scripture have anything to tell me about what it means to be human and to live in this cosmos?
I’ve read or watched several “deconversion” stories lately from prominent Christian authors and musicians, world-famous You-tubers, and even old friends. In every case it seems to me that the gospel they’ve rejected is the two-chapter gospel. They begin to see that the world is bigger than the protective enclaves in which they’ve grown up, and they’ve become weary of the sin-management games that are inherent in such a setting. They have come to view Christianity as a personal religion instead of the true story of all of Creation, and when their personal faith is challenged, they lack a framework that can sustain them. They have been introduced to a Procrustean god and rejected him.
Describe the God you’ve rejected. Describe the God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe that God either.Tim Keller
They are like young boys and girls who stepped into a baby pool and found it refreshing at first, but as they grew older and the water only reached their ankles, their questions became too weighty. The shallow waters of a two-chapter gospel didn’t provide the depth required to keep their lives afloat. With nobody around to direct them to the adult pool or the deep end, they assumed that the Christian faith could not handle the weight of their lives. They believed they’d exhausted all that this religion had to offer, so they stepped out to look for something else, something more robust, something deeper.
But Christianity isn’t simply a personal faith. It isn’t simply sin management or cathartic moments of lifting our hands and voices. It is not less than that, but it is much, much more. It is the story of reality. It is not just another religion. It is the warp and woof of the cosmos. Christ is not simply my personal savior; he is King over all, the logos that holds all things together.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.– Colossians 1:16-17 ESV
The ancient Greeks thought of wisdom as living according to what is really there. Christianity then, rightly understood, is wisdom. It is the freedom of living according to the purpose for which we were designed and helping to restore the world and everything in it to the purpose for which it was designed. To live the Christian life is to live resurrected lives as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Thankfully, there is a resurgence of what is often called the four-chapter gospel:
- Chapter One: Creation
- Chapter Two: Fall
- Chapter Three: Redemption
- Chapter Four: Consummation (or Restoration)
Chapter One: Creation
Scripture begins with a good God creating a good cosmos by the fiat of his spoken Word, and his capstone is the human being:
So God created man in his own image,Genesis 1:27
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Adam and Eve, created in the very image of God—or imago Dei—were then given their mission:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.Genesis 1:28
We call this the cultural mandate. The Creator God, who made all things good, told Adam and Eve to exercise their authority and imagination over creation, to join him as sub-creators, and to cultivate and expand the garden of life. In a word, to create culture. The language of dominion is royal language. In the context of Ancient Near East literature, this would have been the equivalent of naming Adam and Eve the King and Queen of the earth. To have dominion over the every living thing on earth did not mean to dominate or lord it over; selfish abuse of power is sinful, and this mandate was issued before sin entered picture. Adam and Eve were to be good rulers, and good rulers seek the welfare of all that is under their care.
Chapter Two: Fall
Sin does, however, enter the picture. The serpent twists God’s words, Eve follows suit, and consequently all of Creation is thrown cattywampus. By the fourth chapter of Genesis, dominion has come to look like domination, and the culture that is created—iron tools, musical instruments, animal husbandry, and city governance—though good things reflective of a good Creator, are used in the service of the selfishness born of sin. The garden expands, but it is full of weeds. Humans create, but often to spite God rather than assist him (think, for instance of the tower of Babel, the atheistic humanism of the Enlightenment, or the nihilism behind so much of modern literature and art). And the rift in relationship between humans and God is only one of many: sin set wife against husband, brother against brother, humans against the rest of creation, and each person against himself or herself. Humans continue to create because we are designed to do so, but the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28—to expand the garden-kingdom of our Creator—has become twisted and in need of redemption. In short, humankind has, knowingly or not, fulfilled the cultural mandate to a degree by filling and holding dominion over the earth, but has done so recklessly, resulting in a mixture of glorious beauty and heart-wrenching sorrow.
Chapter Three: Redemption
Jesus, the logos, the Word made flesh, came on a redemption mission to renew the imago Dei in the people he himself had created (Col. 1:15-17, Heb. 1:2). His purpose was certainly to save individual souls, but that is only part of the picture.
Jesus’s death and resurrection not only redeemed us (i.e., bought us back from our slavery in sin) but also made possible the restoration of the relationships that had been broken at the Fall. Those that submit to Christ as King find themselves in new relationships not only with God, but also with one another (resulting in the Church) and with the world around them, ultimately making attainable our original purpose as humans: to expand the garden-kingdom of God geographically and numerically.
In fact, his final words to his disciples in Matthew, often called the Great Commission, are an echo of the cultural mandate. In Genesis 1:28, God commands that his representatives on earth should expand the garden-kingdom of God through multiplication (numerically) and cultivation of the ground (geographically). In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus reiterates this same command to his disciples (which I’ve paraphrased here): Bring the good news of my Kingdom to the ends of the earth, and teach fallen sons and daughters of Adam and Eve to obey all that I’ve commanded. That is, Have dominion and multiply my (redeemed) image upon it.
Christ’s death and resurrection efficaciously justified those who believe on him alone for forgiveness of sins. But that’s only the starting point. Once forgiven, we are freed by the grace of Christ to live out our purposes as human beings, our roles as mediators between our King and a world crying out for redemption. Redeeming culture means recognizing all that is good in our institutions, works of art, technological advances, and much more, while simultaneously working to correct the errors in thinking and the injustices in practice that infect every corner of that culture. It is to create well, love well, and seek the welfare of everyone.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”Jeremiah 29:7
Chapter Four: Consummation (Restoration)
The Kingdom work that God commanded Adam and Eve to carry out and that was interrupted and tainted by sin, is recommissioned by the King himself. Jesus dies for our sins and is resurrected that we, too, may live the resurrected life—the life for which we were created—and resume the work of cultivating the garden-kingdom of God. This is the story of reality. This is the story of the cosmos. This story embraces every aspect of human life. To be a Christian is to flourish as a human being. To flourish as a human being is to desire the good of all human beings. To desire the good of all human beings is to engage in life-giving cultural endeavors that bring hope to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, our countries, and the world. The Church is to be an outpost of human flourishing that provides a glimpse of what the fully consummated Kingdom of Christ will be when the New Jerusalem is established by the King himself (Rev. 21). Then every good endeavor will continue to cultivate human flourishing, as well as the flourishing of all creation, and there will be no more pain or tears. It is not simply a return to Eden. When Christ returns, all of the redemptive work that he’s begun in his Church will be complete—consummated—and we will once again fully experience what it means to be the imago Dei, the image of God—sub-creators freely using all of the intellect and creativity with which we were designed, loving the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving one another as we have been loved.
I wonder if we’d have fewer de-conversion stories if we understood and communicated a four-chapter gospel that includes this robustly biblical vision of human flourishing and cultural mission rather than simply a call to personal piety. It’s certainly a deeper pool. Hop in, the water is invigorating.