Reductionist Salvation (Or, Half-Off Gospel)

re-duc-tion-ism—the practice of simplifying a complex idea, issue, condition, or the like, esp. to the point of minimizing, obscuring or distorting it.

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“Now I would remind you brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day…”
(1 Corinthians 15:1-4)

“For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His Life.”
(Romans 5:10)

“In recent years [baby-boomers] have been opposed to organized religion but now make up half the born-again population…they are consumers…and we offered them a deal they could not turn down: for a one-time admission of weakness and failure they got eternal peace with God. That was the deal. They took it and went on with their lives as before…”
–David Wells, Professor, Gordon-Conwell Seminary

“”Believing, then, is directing one’s attention to Jesus. It is lifting the mind to ‘behold the Lamb of God’ and never ceasing that beholding for the rest of our lives.”
–A.W. Tozer

“If all we value is the salvation gospel (i.e., forgiveness gospel), we tend to miss the rest of Christ’s message. Taken out of context of the Kingdom, the call to faith in Christ gets reduced to something less than the New Testament teaches…”
–Rick McKinley, Imago Dei Church

“…The reverse is also true: if we value a kingdom gospel at the expense of the liberating message of the Cross and the empty tomb and a call to repentance, we miss a central tenet of Kingdom life. Without faith in Jesus, there is no transferring our lives into the new world of the Kingdom.”
–Ibid.

“And [Paul] stayed two years…preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ…”
(Acts 28:30,31)

“Christ will not die again on behalf of those who now commit sin because death shall no more have dominion over Him…therefore we should not be puffed up…but we should beware lest somehow, after [we have come to] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God, we obtain no further forgiveness of sins but rather be shut out from His kingdom.”
(Irenaeus, disciple of Polycarp, ‘spiritual grandson’ of John the Apostle)

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Chew on this: every person who applied blood to the doorpost in Egypt escaped the wrath of God, yes? What of those who died in the wilderness because of “unbelief” and willful rebellion in their hearts? Weren’t they “covered”? The writer of Hebrews would say, yes, they were covered, but they didn’t continue.

I had believed myself years ago that those who perished in the wilderness either (a) had not truly believed on that fateful Passover night, or (b) didn’t die and go to hell, but died as carnal, disobedient Christians, making it to heaven anyway.

But that is not the tone of Hebrews 3. The writer uses provocative language to describe their plight and destiny. God was “provoked” with them (v10) because they “always erred (strayed)” in their “hearts” and His punitive sentence was to disallow them entrance into His Rest. The context suggests an eternal rest, not just that they never experienced the victorious Christian life and still got in by the skin of their teeth. They didn’t get in. Period.

I ask again: were these not ‘blood-bought, saved, people of God’? Did they not break free of Egypt, at least geographically? Did they not make the necessary voyage through the Red Sea and pop up on the other side, dry as a bone? Did they not meet at the mountain of God, “make a decision” to obey Him, vocalize their assent (Ex 24:4), then follow Him all the way to the edge of the Promised Land?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes…and affirmative.

The gospel in the west has been reduced to a simple formula that offers the inquirer who accepts it a false security. Let me explain.

I was a fired-up-for-God teenager who couldn’t wait for Thursday night visitation in our church’s youth ministry. While the rest of my peers went into the benign neighborhoods, myself and a handful of “preacher boys” would hop into a beat-up church van and travel into Atlanta’s mean streets, like the Techwood projects. Imagine, a small gaggle of lily-whited, pressed-pants and dress-shirted church boys injected into a culture of drugs, sirens and prostitutes.

First thing I did when I jumped out of the van was to find a group of children because they were the ‘easiest’. It never took long in those summer months because kids were as plentiful as Georgia gnats, playing in the streets in perfectly apportioned ‘congregations’.

“Hey y’all!” I called out. They turned, eyes wide with puzzlement and wonder.

“Can I talk to you for five minutes?”

Tentative nods all around.

“How many of you would like to live in a mansion?” In the belly of poverty, amid the stench of burning asphalt and rotting vegetation, and flanked on all sides by worn-down bungalows, the response was obvious. Me? My own mansion? Spill the beans, mister!

In a promised five minutes I gave them the “gospel” by explaining to them that mansions crisscrossed by golden avenues could be theirs if they would only believe that they were sinners, that Jesus died on a cross for their sins and rose again, and if they would ask Him to come into their hearts.

“That’s it. It’s so easy,” I gushed. Their little eyes were locked onto mine, no doubt with the expectation with the likes that Santa would come early and tramp upon their rooftops on that smoldering summer night and change their fortunes before morning.

“How many of you would like to pray after me and ask Jesus to come into your hearts and save you?”

Hands shot into the air, attached to ramrod straight little arms, each locked at the elbow. I smiled and asked them to bow their heads, close their eyes and repeat a lyrical prayer after me. When the “amen” was pronounced, I lifted my head and asked how many had prayed that prayer—from their heart. The same number of hands dissected the heavy, stagnant air, some with fingers wiggling. With great satisfaction I counted the hands, kept a mental note of the score as I would my own points in a basketball game, and cheerily departed as they got back to their game.

There was no mention of repentance, nothing of baptism or even a promise to keep tabs on them in discipleship. I just wanted to tell the other preacher boys in the van “I got thirty-one souls tonight!”

I think of those precious ones and others I led to the Lord through the years, telling them they were forgiven but nothing about the exchanged life, abiding in Him and faithful submission to the Lord all the way to the end. Did they just think they were trading the mean streets for golden ones, or have they remained in Him (John 15:4-6)? I have often wondered.

Don’t get me wrong. I came to Jesus the same way. I was distraught over my life (not the promises of big mansions in the sky), prayed along with my Dad and gave myself over to Jesus. I applied the blood of forgiveness to the doorpost of my heart and, no doubt, His life entered mine. My concern is that we leave potential converts in Egypt, giving them a false security that they are in because they prayed a prayer and the matter of their eternal salvation is forever settled.

The Gospel that Jesus preached—and His disciples, by the way (before they ever knew anything about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ)—-was more than a gospel of forgiveness. THE Gospel not only saves from sin, but to full completion. A one-time prayer with no evidence of an abiding life is an incomplete, deceptive gospel.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, Scott, I believe what you just said. But the fact such lives do not evidence His life and the “more, much and remaining” fruit of the exchanged life proves they never were saved. Right?

Wrong. I ask again: did those who obediently apply the paschal lamb’s blood to those doorposts in Egypt escape the wrath of God? Were they saved from His wrath? Were they, in fact, held unaccountable and forgiven?

Yes, yes and yes.

So, then, what is THE Gospel? Can you articulate it?

Let me start with mine: THE Gospel is that Jesus Messiah has come and has brought with Him His Kingdom, that is, His right to rule, and has secured that Kingdom (made provision for it) by His death, burial and resurrection (of “first importance”, 1 Cor 15:3), and is calling out to any who will come under His reign so they can become citizens of and populate His Kingdom.

My definition likely is not “perfect” but I believe it hits more to the heart of the thing God is doing in the earth since the Garden episode. Really, long, long, looong before that!

The Father has been seeking a Bride that is worthy of His Son but the problem arises when there is “no one” who can qualify (Romans 3:10). So the Second Adam—Jesus—came, perfectly obedient to the will of the Father, to set the right order, introduce a heavenly kingdom, and call out of the race of Adam a people redeemed, chaste (not a Jesus-plus-other-lovers people), and peculiar. The “first word of the kingdom” (Mark 1:15) tells us how this exchange, transfer and transformation takes place: repentance and faith.

Here is where some of you will interject: Okay, I’ll bite. What is the problem? That sounds like my gospel, at least that last phrase. That happened when I prayed that prayer a long time ago.

Ah, but saving faith is ongoing belief, not one-time belief, no matter how sincere. Jesus, in John chapter three, tells us that the full work of redemption—

May I interrupt myself?

What most of the church has heard over the last hundred or so years is a ransom gospel, rather than a redemption gospel. When slaves were ransomed or emancipated, they were free to leave their plantations and live the lives they wanted. They became their own employer, their own boss, free to live and do as they pleased. Their debt was paid. They were “free”.

Jesus did not die to ransom us only, but to wholly redeem and create a new race of people. Why? Grace, beloved. Pure, pure grace! How? Again, by grace that empowers us to live this other life that is not our own (see Gal 2:20).

Back to my previous thought:

Jesus, in John chapter three, tells us (in a conversation with Nicodemus) that the full work of redemption (THE Gospel) accomplishes more than forgiveness, as good as that is.

As in all of scripture, it is necessary to read the context (the verses around the passage in question), and so we read that the passage just prior to John 3:16—without paragraph division—is the matter of Israel, their rebellion, fiery serpents and the bronze snake. Numbers 21 is the reference point and in it we see that those who were poisoned by the toxin of the snakes (hmmmm, Genesis 3:14,15 anybody?) were told to focus on the serpent on a pole (a picture of Christ being made sin on the Cross, poisoned by the toxins of Adam’s race) and they would be delivered of the sin and live (Numbers 21:8,9).

Another interruption, please—

What did John the Baptizer say when Jesus walked up to him at the River Jordan?

Here’s what I used to quote: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

(You: that’s right, isn’t it?)

Sorry. It got me too!

This is what was actually said: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Did you see it? Read it again…I’ll wait.

YES! He said the Lamb who would take away “THE sin (singular) of the world.”

Back to the suspended track of thought:

The Israelites were prone to go their own way (Isaiah 53:6), to rebel and be their own gods (see Genesis 3:5). This picture in Numbers 21 is not just a singular, historical, passing event of the wilderness. Jesus used it to put teeth to His impending work of the Cross. John, His cousin, saw it. The Cross would heal—heal!—those would “gaze” upon the Son (and never stop!) from going their own way.

“By His stripes we are healed.”
(Isaiah 53:5)

Sorry to you who use this as an ‘abracadabra’ for every matter of physical healing. Context, please?

The very next verse explains why His Passion was necessary:

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way…(that is why) the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity (singular) of us all.”
(Isaiah 53:6)

“THE iniquity.”

What, pray tell, is THE iniquity? It is to be our own gods. It is THE sin of the Garden. Adam’s downfall. In the church we are still preaching against smoking, cussing, adultery, pants on women and new translations of the Bible—and we should keep preaching against the first three!—but those are all “berries on the bush”, a bush that needs to be wholly cut down (see Luke 3:9)!

The whole tree is man calling the shots. The anti-Tree of Life. Man deciding what is best for himself. Man straying from God (“prone to wander, Lord I feel it…”). Man on the throne. The Good News is that Jesus Messiah came to destroy that tree and His work was gloriously “finished” (John 19:30; see also John 17:4).

Look around the Church and see: are most converts trusting in a ransom gospel? Has the Gospel of Jesus Christ somehow been replaced by a gospel that promises heaven to those who stay in Egypt?

The death, burial and resurrection of Christ is of first importance. There is no way into the Kingdom unless a man is born again by faith in the Son of God. But faith—hearing God’s word, believing it as from God, and obeying it—is not a one-time proposition. It is an abiding belief. The writer of Hebrews warns saved, blood-bought, blood-washed people that neglecting their salvation can lead to drifting, unbelief, hardness and ultimately, to apostasy.

He says that salvation (from first to last*) is, first of all an “escape” (2:3) from the wrath of God and the dark kingdom.

Second, the writer of Hebrews reminds us salvation (from first to last) is a journey, a race of sorts. We must “pay closer attention”, “share” in it, “hold fast” to it, be “firm…to the end” (3:14); have “earnestness…until the end” (6:11), to “not shrink back”, and to “(be having) faith” (10:39).

Lastly, we learn from Hebrews that salvation (from first to last) is a transport, not only from the dark kingdom, its curse and damnation, but to fullness and glory (12:18-24; see also Colossians 1:13 and 1 Peter 3:18).

Is your salvation like this? This is my burden for the church. I am glad to know this Gospel that saves not only from sin but brings a yielded soul to completion, a fit habitation for God, locked in an eternal embrace with the Son as His Bride, knowing it is only by grace that any of it could be possible, not by my human effort or religion.

When we share the Good News, let’s not reduce it to a partial gospel that promises the hope of eternal life to those who feel covered by a prayer they parroted once upon a time. Nor should we complicate it with an overload of theological gymnastics, linguistics and jargon.

A woman I dearly admire said, “the way I see it, the whole gospel comes down to ‘Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way…”

Isn’t this the gospel “that will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations…and then the end will come”? (Matthew 24:14)

Well, then, let’s preach it, brother! All of it!

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*Romans 1:17—“from faith to faith” is translated ‘from beginning to end’ (from the shallow end of the pool—the starting point—to the deep end where the Water of Life carries you and you cannot stand on your own two feet!)

9 thoughts on “Reductionist Salvation (Or, Half-Off Gospel)

  1. brotherjohnny says:

    Greetings, Big Brother!
    You’re touching on some pretty vital stuff here. I do think that what has been offered from the majority of pulpits over the last several hundred years has been less than ‘complete’.

    I’m sure that I’ll be chewing on what you’ve said here for a bit…, but I’ll go ahead and offer my present reaction…

    Unfortunately, people can only teach what they, themselves, have been taught.

    Reconciliation to God is HUGE. For me, it means that The King and I are, once again, on good terms. The way that these good terms were worked out proves The Kings Nature and character: The King IS Love. He is nothing like the king that I once knew and who made my life hell. He is not a cruel dictator. He is a “Servant Leader” and He leads, primarily by example.

    Am I free to abuse His grace? Of course. Would that be at all wise, loving, fruitful or right?
    By no means. It would surely lead to corruption. Have I ever abused his grace? I’m not totally sure that I know anyone who has not….and yes, that troubles my heart.

    Do I think that leaves us, who have tested the edges of God’s favor, in a state of perpetual disdain? Not one bit….but I have learned better for it all, and wouldn’t suggest that anyone test the Lord’s patience in that way.

    I think– no. I KNOW that the three-day work, while often simply being taught and understood as a ‘ransom’, is much more comprehensive than that. There is so much involved with what happened in the death and resurrection that goes far beyond a simple ransom.

    His death: WE died to the law and sin (well…, I mean we just died! To everything that can be died to!!).
    OUT with legalism and all of it’s forms. OUT with “Oh, I am such a wretched sinner…”. OUT with “I am not a very good Christian…”.
    In fact, OUT with “I”, period.

    Sure. Those who are not continuing in the truth of what I am saying here, and those who might be running off after the lusts of the flesh, etc… could accurately maybe make those kinds of statements above, but my deepest concern is if the truth of union with Christ in His crucifixion (and His resurrection) has been thoroughly established. As Paul has been known to say, “Don’t you know?”

    “YOU ARE DEAD and life is hid with Christ in God”.
    If this is not a living revelation within the heart of the believer, then I am afraid that there is little hope for much else in terms of Spiritual fruit.

    But on the flipside there is another emphasis:
    His resurrection (even over and above ‘the cross’). This, I have come to believe was the central theme for the earliest Christians. Why this and not ‘the kingdom’? Because the central theme to the Kingdom itself MUST BE THE KING and if the King lie dead in a tomb, all hope is lost….but since THE KING HAS RISEN (we are no longer in our sins and our faith is not in vain) and was seen by many, and He has given the promised Holy Spirit, the Kingdom may now come on Earth as it is in Heaven.

    Because of His resurrection, those who have been joined to Him through baptism are now seated in heavenly places IN HIM!! (There is so much to being IN HIM, but this is supposed to be an ‘initial response’, haha…).🙂

    In general, there seems to be two basic schools of thought: ‘Gospel’ believers and also ‘Epistle’ believers.
    I started out as a “red letter” kind of guy in my earliest years with the Lord, but then shifted to an ‘epistle’ guy. What I am seeing now, however (as Scot McKnight and others have also noted) is that you really can’t have one without the other.
    In my understanding, the ‘letters’ unpack the ‘gospels’.
    Jesus’ teaching doesn’t really doesn’t ‘make total sense’ when it’s divorced from his death and resurrection. Likewise, the epistles don’t make total sense when divorced from Jesus three day work and his ‘earthly ministry’.

    For me, there really is something to the unfolding of HiStory which, if ignored, leaves us primarily just with little separate doctrines here and there.

    Paul hardly mentioned “The Kingdom” in his letters, but he wrote about it extensively.
    I really like the phrase “the eternal purpose”.

    Please don’t take any of this as ‘corrective’, and I hope that it doesn’t have too much of a ‘teachy’ tone about it. As with your post, there is a lot that could still be said about related thoughts and issues, but, again… 🙂 this was supposed to be brief!

    Ah, well…
    I love you, Brother, and I appreciate you as the Gift that you are!

    Like

  2. brotherjohnny says:

    Okay…
    Since my last comment was somewhat incoherent, maybe this (shorter?) one will help to make sense of it it relation to your post.

    First, I agree that ‘the kingdom’ has been under emphasized in modern evangelicalism and that what has been offered instead is ‘spiritual fire insurance’.

    Second, I do agree that it is of the utmost importance to continue on in following the Lord (the Spirit)after our conversion to Christ.

    Third, I love your definition of the gospel. I would (briefly) define it like this:

    God has always had a purpose which can be traced throughout all of scripture. It is an eternal purpose. It is for God to have a cooperative people who will share in His reign– to be fruitful and reproductive and having dominion over all of the Earth.

    This ‘project’ was successfully initiated in the Person of Christ Jesus and is to be carried forward by those who have come to know Him as both Lord and Christ– those who have been joined to Him in Baptism, reconciled to the One True Father God, and who are looking forward to their own subsequent resurrection bodies and who have been given His Spirit and in whom He dwells.

    This New Creation community of people (the Church–made up of many smaller communities) is, by the leading of His Spirit, the first fruits of what life will be like when Christ returns.

    So, in short, the good news is that there is a True Way to Live in Gods Will which has been started and will be finished in the Person of Jesus Christ. It is a way which is not simply ‘pie in the sky’, but can be experienced in the here and now.

    Okay, now that I have (as usual) bombarded your comments section with words, I look forward to reading more of your Jesus infused thoughts…..

    Grace and Peace to you in the Lord Jesus Christ!

    Like

    • pasturescott says:

      JT!

      First, secondly and lastly…I love you, my brother! I apologize for the tardiness of my reply but my laptop has been recovering from abuse–I left it out in the van on several of these icy-chilled nights and I thought I had committed computricide (is that a word?) but, to God be praise, it has been gently and lovingly nursed back to health. The pages are now loading in seconds rather than minutes…(thank You, Lord!)…

      As for your comments–and I mean this–write all you like, Johnny! I always enjoy your input and I have it in personal knowledge that others do as well. It feels like a cyber-dialogue–a cyber-logue!–and I gladly admit you hit on things that need to be articulated! I love two things about you (there’s more, of course): your magnificent obsession with our Jesus and the Great Exchange and I love your balanced view on things. I really enjoyed your help in the full and revealed Gospel and its stamp on this New Creation Community (now there’s a name for a church!).

      Isn’t this a good exercise? To codify the Gospel of our Lord–how I welcome what you and others know and believe and what you would lay down your life for! It’s a Gospel that makes us “fruitful and reproductive” to His Majesty’s eternal glory.

      Sometime over the holy days ahead, brother, I would love to fellowship again. I’ll be in touch, JT.

      Thank you for adding to my life and for being a friend.

      Like

      • brotherjohnny says:

        I’m always blessed by both what you share and how you share it, Brother.
        It’s Glorious, in deed.🙂
        And tardy shmarty!

        Looking forward to that time…. whenever it is time.

        Like

  3. Marie says:

    “This is my burden for the church. I am glad to know this Gospel that saves not only from sin but brings a yielded soul to completion, a fit habitation for God, locked in an eternal embrace with the Son as His Bride, knowing it is only by grace that any of it could be possible, not by my human effort or religion.”

    Oh, how I wish this Truth could be heard throughout the land!

    Your whole word here is Life-giving, hope-filled, freeing.

    The Lord use this word to open the eyes of men – to lead them to true Life eternal.

    Like

    • pasturescott says:

      I share your heart, Marie. It has been a joyful blessing to hammer out these things with you over the course of the years. Thank you for letting me hear the Good News through you. The evidence of His being Savior and King is seen in you, my sister. Love to you and your Hubs.

      Like

  4. Jerald Hill says:

    I’ve heard this before but I love the way you have said it here.
    What I am hearing is your plea for us to get it right and not be fooled by the enemy. Keep writing Scott. You are doing great!

    Like

    • pasturescott says:

      You are kind, sir! Has this not been a great adventure to discover and uncover these truths, knowing they are given to those who would see, hear and understand? To “search them out” and allow the Holy Spirit to ‘connect the dots’ for us? I need the Jesus in you, brother, to teach me. Thank you for being available!

      I wonder what the next few years will hold? More revelation (not NEW teaching, but TRUE teaching) from the One who leads us into all truth. May it always be said of you and me and our loved ones, that we are among those who ‘receive a love for the Truth’.

      Amen.

      Like

  5. Okay… Since my last comment was somewhat incoherent, maybe this (shorter?) one will help to make sense of it it relation to your post. First, I agree that ‘the kingdom’ has been under emphasized in modern evangelicalism and that what has been offered instead is ‘spiritual fire insurance’. Second, I do agree that it is of the utmost importance to continue on in following the Lord (the Spirit)after our conversion to Christ. Third, I love your definition of the gospel. I would (briefly) define it like this: God has always had a purpose which can be traced throughout all of scripture. It is an eternal purpose. It is for God to have a cooperative people who will share in His reign– to be fruitful and reproductive and having dominion over all of the Earth. This ‘project’ was successfully initiated in the Person of Christ Jesus and is to be carried forward by those who have come to know Him as both Lord and Christ– those who have been joined to Him in Baptism, reconciled to the One True Father God, and who are looking forward to their own subsequent resurrection bodies and who have been given His Spirit and in whom He dwells. This New Creation community of people (the Church–made up of many smaller communities) is, by the leading of His Spirit, the first fruits of what life will be like when Christ returns. So, in short, the good news is that there is a True Way to Live in Gods Will which has been started and will be finished in the Person of Jesus Christ. It is a way which is not simply ‘pie in the sky’, but can be experienced in the here and now. Okay, now that I have (as usual) bombarded your comments section with words, I look forward to reading more of your Jesus infused thoughts….. Grace and Peace to you in the Lord Jesus Christ!

    Like

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