We hope so, but there’s even more to it
Idistinctly remember the looks from my Grade 2 classmates when I told them at show and tell that I’d received Jesus as my personal Saviour. I didn’t fully understand what that meant, but I knew I’d had a real experience of Jesus at my parents’ bedside the night before.
When Evangelicals say Jesus is their personal Saviour, their meaning varies, I’m sure. The word personal, though, generally indicates an experience of Jesus as a real person, and not just an abstract truth. The gospel as Evangelicals proclaim it promises not merely an acknowledgement of a truth or a mechanical reception of forgiveness of sin, but a relational reconciliation to God through Jesus and the Spirit.
Many, including some Evangelicals and "ex-vangelicals" alike, call into question this historical personal aspect of the gospel. They argue personalist language distorts the New Testament vision of the gospel. The gospel is an apostolic proclamation of the arrival of the Kingdom of God embodied in Jesus Christ, not a call to make a personal decision to accept Jesus. The language of personal relationship introverts the gospel and leads to an individualistic faith, they argue.
It’s true Evangelicals haven’t always sufficiently discerned that the gospel is about the restoration of what the Bible calls "the heavens and the earth," and not just humans. Clear glimpses of the cosmic scope of Jesus’ work are evident in Romans 8, 2 Corinthians 5 and Revelation 20.
Critics who insist the gospel is not merely about Jesus and me are correct. However, even this correction needs qualification. It’s true God is working toward the corporate and cosmic restoration of creation, but such a truth should not be allowed to negate the interpersonal dimension of salvation.
Far too often theologians (myself included!) get caught up in a historical pendulum swing of thought.
Far too often theologians (myself included!) get caught up in a historical pendulum swing of thought. If some interpretations of the gospel have focused too much on the individual benefits of salvation, the solution is not to jettison personalistic aspects in favour of communal and cosmic dimensions.
Swiss theologian Karl Barth generally did not have kind words for certain Evangelicals of his generation (and Evangelicals didn’t have many kind words for him). Barth was suspicious of revivalism and pietism precisely because such evangelical movements overemphasized the movement of the Spirit and the need for personal appropriation of the gospel to the detriment of its cosmic dimensions.
However, a tool Barth used in the entirety of his theology can help us here. It is the concept of dialectic, meaning some theological realities are double-sided and need both sides to be emphasized, even when they seem in tension. For example we cannot, indeed must not, settle between whether Jesus was divine or human, as if we had to choose between these options. The history of heresy is precisely an attempt to weigh evidence to one side or the other. Both statements are equally true and must be upheld, even if it’s difficult to understand how both can be true at the same time.
Theological dialectic discerns that not everything true can be portrayed in strict binary either/ors.
I contend we don’t have to decide between the personal and communal/cosmic dimensions of the gospel. Both are in evidence in Scripture, and both therefore are true. It is this two-sidedness of the gospel which stands out as its beauty, as opposed to many worldly ideologies which often oversimplify.
God is seeking to reconcile all things to Himself, which includes a corporate people of God within the context of the heavens and the earth – but that can hardly be true if such reconciliation excludes the individual.
Scripture paints a beautiful picture of new creation coming because of God’s initiative (2 Corinthians 5:17). But the astounding thing is that the Father of creation condescends and calls us as individuals to make the decision to come and follow him (Matthew 4:19).
It is this God – who long ago initiated His work of reconciliation independent of our decision – who we seek to introduce. But we also seek to persuade people to respond personally to His son Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:20) so that we too can be more like Him through the transforming of our minds (Romans 12:1–2).
Let’s never forget God is reconciling the world to Himself. But let’s never be ashamed to say we have a personal relationship with this same God in Jesus Christ. That is the beauty and mystery of the gospel we proclaim.
David Guretzki is the EFC’s president and CEO. Read more of these columns at FaithToday.ca/CrossConnections. Child praying photo by Shutterstock.com