What is the gospel? Is it Jesus as saviour or Jesus as Lord? The cross or the resurrection? Salvation from wrath or a glorious new hope? Well, it’s all of the above, isn’t it? Don Carson noted in his second talk that Paul’s definition of the gospel has a focus on incarnation and resurrection – no cross! When I heard David Cook speak on the same passage at NTE 6 years ago, he made the same point. He called it the ‘Circle of Truth’: mentioning one part of the gospel implies the others. You can’t preach one to the exclusion of the others, but nor should we feel the need to cram every concept into every explanation of the gospel. I thought this was what Don was saying as well. Don showed how Paul’s explanation of the gospel was shaped according to what was being denied in the context he was speaking into.
However, then Don went on to make another point: don’t trim the gospel. Here, he said that too many people today leave God’s wrath out of the equation, thereby robbing the gospel of its message of reconciliation. He went on to say that that gospel’s not the gospel unless you talk about wrath. This to me seems to contradict his earlier point. Surely, since Paul himself doesn’t put wrath in his definition of the gospel, it’s not necessary to mention wrath every time! I take it the reason Don was mentioning this was because he believes that wrath is the issue being denied in our context but he nevertheless overstated his point.
Why does this matter? It matters because the rest of the main sessions had what I perceived to be a pessimistic view of the cross. I don’t have a lot of hard evidence for that: it’s mainly just the vibe I was getting as Don pushed wrath and the music at NTE pushed suffering. Songs like ‘Perfect and Painful Love’ are almost entirely about the suffering of the cross. There were other songs that also emphasised the pain and horror of the cross. My suspicion is that this is hitting at non-violent atonement, choosing to glory in the cross rather than to be ashamed of it. However, my reflection was that while this suffering was ‘for us’, little attention is given to the achievements of the cross. This cross isn’t victorious, just bloody.
Without a firm grasp of the achievements of the cross, we end up in a subjective kind of theology, Christ as an example to follow but not much else. Of course, this is where Don complemented the music. He was quite clear about the achievement of God’s wrath being turned away. However, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something pessimistic in both. Where was the celebration of my purity before Christ? the empowerment of the Spirit? my elevated status before God because I am included in Christ? They were hovering around the edges, as if they were triumphalist, a side track from real focus on the cross.
It depends how you diagnose the world, I suppose. If you think the world is self-righteous with no understanding of sin, sure, emphasise wrath and and the pain of the cross. There’s truth to that and I’ve appreciated AFES’s refusal to shy away from that. But I suspect our world is also in desperate need of hope. They don’t just need to be saved from God’s wrath but given a brighter vision, a bigger identity, a more compelling mission. There are a number of different angles to the cross, all of them useful in evangelism. Don Carson warned against ‘trimming the gospel’: that’s why he said we can’t leave out wrath. But I wondered whether the main sessions actually did trim the gospel by neglecting some other themes.
It’s tricky. I feel like when I went to uni, God’s wrath, the horror and glory of the cross, these were the new things I hadn’t heard in my church that filled out my understanding of the gospel. In many ways the only reason I can ask for attention to other angles is because my conviction of our sin, God’s wrath and the cross is so strong — a conviction I have thanks, largely, to AFES. I suspect that many students are in the same position as I was. So I don’t want to impose my position onto where they’re at. I don’t want them to miss out on hearing those imporant things! Yet, I’m still uncomfortable with the prominence they were given at NTE. Are we purposely over-emphasising something because we’re in reaction to something else? Shouldn’t we be aiming for truth, not trying to balance something else out? Or would that not be giving students room to grow and mature?
(Photos from NTE 2010 by David Johnstone)
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.