Two Gospels?

There are within evangelicalism today, Tim Chester claims, two apparently competing gospels offering alternative views on not only the nature of the gospel (for individuals or for society?) and the meaning of Jesus death of cross (soteriological or political?) but also the mission and the role of the church today (proclamation or social action). For most participants in these debates, Chester says, it is not so much what is affirmed but what is emphasized (25).

These two gospels, are, Chester says, in fact one gospel. What is required for us though is to better understand how these two emphases are integrally related to one another in forming one gospel. “We need a co-ordinated gospel in which the cross is central to the gospel of the kingdom and the kingdom is central to the gospel of the cross.” (17) It is for this which Chester attempts a coherent explanation for in this book.

The Gospel of the Cross:

Chester begins by further explaining these two gospels. The gospel of the cross, he says, focuses on the propitiation of God’s wrath, the forgiveness of sins and the invitation to believe. These doctrines are more fully expounded in the later epistles and thus the gospel of the cross has been, at times, accused of having an overly Pauline focus.

The Gospel of the Kingdom:

There is no doubt though that Jesus proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom in continuity with the great prophetic promises of the Old Testament. The Good news of the Kingdom which Jesus preached was that God’s reign was coming and that reign was a reign of justice, of peace and of restoration.

For most the shape of the Kingdom is defined by their eschatology. Walter Rauschenbusch and the social gospel movement associated with his name, believed that the kingdom would be realized gradually within history through the transformation of the prevailing social order. This usually meant the triumph of western civilization and enlightenment values.

Others have seen the kingdom as an almost wholly future reality. The consensus today is that the kingdom is both present and future, a position known as inaugurated eschatology.

The Biblical Story is the story of the Kingdom of God:

Chester demonstrates how the Bible is indeed the story of the Kingdom of God. Of God re-establishing his rule of life, justice, salvation and peace. The Old Testament repeatedly asserts that God will restore his kingdom through the reign of the coming King and the New Testament clearly portrays Jesus to be that King.

The Kingdom of God, Chester says refers both to the realm over which the king rules, and the act of reigning, the “dynamic activity of God in history.” (15) “The community of Jesus becomes the place on earth in which the kingdom is taking shape. It becomes the place in which the future can be seen. The gospel of the kingdom is a message of future liberation. But the new regime has begun among Christ’s community of the broken.” (16)

The Conundrum of the Cross:

However, with the arrival of Jesus we are faced with the biblical conundrum of the cross. The King has come to restore God’s reign, establishing the justice and righteousness of God on earth, but the king is opposed and rejected.

The Kingdom is good news to all but those who would perpetrate injustice but that implicates us all. “Without the message of the cross, the kingdom of God is not good news for humanity because we are all rebels and rebels will experience God’s judgement. The good news of the cross is that the King has died in our place, bearing our punishment.” (75)

The Kingdom has always been and is still the goal of God’s redemptive work, but it is only through the cross that we may enter and experience the richness of the Kingdom. Kingdom and cross are not separate emphases, much less separate gospels, but integrally connected as goal and means of redemption.

Thus, there can be no proclamation of the Kingdom of God without the proclamation of the cross. The cross redefines our understanding of Kingdom.

An Asymmetrical Inseparable Relationship:

How then do we understand the relationship between the gospel of the kingdom and the gospel of the cross? It is an asymmetrical relationship (Keller would call this an “asymmetrical inseparable relationship”1. Without an emphasis on the kingdom, the gospel of the cross is inadequate but without an emphasis on the cross, the gospel of the kingdom is not gospel… We are left with a legalistic gospel of self-righteousness through social action.” (102)

Although a short book in Tim Chester’s typical style it is packed with dense theological concepts explained simply and yet with great depth. Chester does a good job of not only laying out complex arguments in an easy to understand fashion but also in fairly representing the various positions.

His reconciliation of the “two gospels” is incredibly helpful particularly because it takes seriously the validity of both Kingdom and Cross and in so doing avoids the common temptation towards reductionistic arguments found on either side of the divide.

Gospel and Implications:

The one area which I would have liked to see Chester develop more, and this is perhaps unfair in a book this size, is his distinction between the gospel and the implications of the gospel. He rightly says that we must differentiate between the two and that our response, though important is not a part of the gospel, which must be understood as what God does in Christ through his incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and return.

The implications of the gospel though, are far reaching and include economic, social and political dimensions. In fact, Chester seems to almost too easily divide “the two gospels” by equating the cross centred gospel with the gospel message and the kingdom centred gospel with the gospel implications. But the gospel word speaks not only of what happens in Jesus but what that achieves. And what the work of Christ achieves is not only an individual redemption from sin but also the good news that we may now be released from the power of sin and included in the new life of the kingdom. The message of the gospel itself speaks to the social, political and economic dimensions of life, just as the kingdom itself does. But only because of Jesus’ work on the cross.

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  1. Keller, Timothy. 2010. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. Hodder & Stoughton: London