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Of First Importance (part 3)

Eight words that help us preach the gospel correctly

This is part three of a three-part series. Inparts one andtwo, the author explained five of the eight key adjectives that help us preach the gospel correctly, based on 1 Corinthians 15. He resumes here with the sixth descriptive adjective.

D. A. Carson: The gospel is personal. At the end of the day, you have to believe it. Paul makes it personal even in the way he addresses the Corinthians: This is what we preached; this is what you believed (vv. 2–3).

Biblical Christianity is wonderfully universal.

There's considerable emphasis today in evangelical circles about the dangers of American individualism, and by way of response some stress communitarianism. There's huge truth to this response. The danger is we forget there is a personal element to faith. The individual must trust. One of the dangers of people movements, people conversions, is that sometimes you get whole tribes nominally converting, but you're not really sure how much actual regeneration has taken place.

Sometimes you can get a lot of people who have been through the process of conversion but are remarkably hateful or are morally not differentiable from the broader culture. One wonders how much conversion in a biblical sense has occurred. You can be in a church that is formally orthodox but with surprisingly few converted people in it. You have to keep saying that biblical Christianity is personal; it demands personal faith and obedience, even if the result is a glorious communal life.

A biblical understanding of conversion is bound up in God's activity within us to renew us, to bring about conviction of sin, faith in Christ, regeneration by the Holy Spirit. It is a comprehensive thing and is bound up with personal faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

Would you say that showing the personal nature of the gospel is an area where American preachers do well?

It depends on what segment of the church the preacher is in. For those who come from a more fundamentalist camp or a more Arminian heritage or an altar-call kind of background, then there's still a lot of emphasis on the individual. What is often missing is a wholesome stress on the church as church. Perhaps the loudest voices in the Southern Baptist heritage would be an example. But some preaching, almost in reaction to the manipulation that can accompany personal appeals, declares the gospel without laying it on the conscience at all, without insisting that people lift their voices heavenward and cry, God, be merciful to me a sinner! The preacher needs to appeal to the individual conscience for repentance and faith. The preacher has an obligation to do more than speak in generalities.

Seventh, the gospel is universal. Paul ties the gospel to an Adam Christology (vv. 22, 45), thereby drawing in men and women from across the human race.

In an age when Christianity is often seen as exclusive—whereas Buddhism, Hinduism, and secularism are often seen as inclusive—it's important to say two things. Number one: Every claim is in some sense exclusive. In a finite world, that's unavoidable. If you hold to the kind of inclusivism that teaches all views about God are equally valid, then this already presupposes a certain view of God that necessarily excludes the view of God that Muslims, Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons hold. In other words, it is already an exclusive view. If you are a finite human being, and you hold strongly to any view, even the so-called inclusive view, you are necessarily exclusive in some sense.

Christians admit their exclusivity much more than the inclusivists admit their exclusivity. But in admitting and glorying in it, we say this is not an exclusivity built on our intrinsic superiority, because we're the first to acknowledge we're never more than poor beggars telling other poor beggars where there's bread.

Secondly, we insist that in the exclusivity of Christ's claims he is drawing to himself men and women from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. Around the throne on the last day will be people from everywhere. In that sense, biblical Christianity is wonderfully universal. That constantly needs to be said not only to address questions of racism, narrowness, and cultural confinement, but also because today we are more conscious than ever of the global church and different cultures and multi-ethnicities. Far from running from those things, we should be glorying in them.

In that sense I tell my students that in some ways, L.A. is more like heaven than Lincoln, Nebraska. There might be other ways in which Lincoln is more like heaven, but on that front we have to keep delighting in the diversity that will characterize the new heaven and the new earth. That has a huge appeal today to people under the age of thirty in our big cities, because they understand it's the nature of the culture. We don't want to be at the tail end of that; we want to be at the front end.

Eighth, the gospel is eschatological. In the gospel one finds not only God's pronouncement of acquittal and vindication for Christ's people now, but also the anticipation of the consummated glory still to come.

Today there is a rising number of people often connected with the emerging movement or with Stanley Hauerwas who use kingdom almost exclusively as an adjective—kingdom ethics and kingdom living, and so on. Again, there's something to what they are saying—not only would I not deny it, but I'd insist on it—but the gospel suffers as soon as kingdom becomes only an adjective; there's no undergirding theology of what the kingdom is. What is striking is the diversity of ways in which the biblical writers use the word kingdom. For instance: You cannot enter the kingdom without being born again. In that sense, one is either in the kingdom or not, and the determining factor is the new birth. But again: The kingdom is like a field containing wheat and weeds, both saved and non-saved in this eschatological age until the consummation. In this sense, everyone is in the kingdom, whether they recognize it or not. Or again: we read that all authority belongs to Christ already, that Christ is already reigning over the whole, even if that reign is currently contested. The separation comes only later. But in other passages, the word kingdom refers only to what will come in the consummation. Many contemporary uses of kingdom are so restrictive that they begin to leave out the sweep of biblical usage. We must build a theology of the kingdom that is faithful to all that Scripture says in this regard. In that case, we will not only be concerned for "kingdom ethics," but we will be teaching people to cry with Christians from every generation, "Even so, yes, come, Lord Jesus!"

By and large I don't think we're good in North America at preparing people for death, preparing people to think in terms of the glory still to come. We think in terms of preparing people for retirement more than we think about preparing people for the new heaven and the new earth and resurrected life. That is bound up with eschatology, with thinking through what our ultimate end will be, of resurrection existence still to come. In many of our circles, death is the last taboo. We used to be unable to talk about sex or homosexuality. We can talk about such subjects nowadays; we still can't talk about death.

That's partly because we're so comfortable here. But that is far removed from the New Testament vision that insists that we lay up treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not corrode, where thieves do not dig through and steal. It is critical to think eschatologically about our salvation to where it makes sense to have deferred gratification. I don't think you can long have strong confessionalism, strong spirituality, and strong moral vision, without also having strong eschatology.

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of numerous books, including Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway).

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Of First Importance (part 1)

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Of First Importance (part 2)

Eight words that help us preach the gospel correctly.
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