The Total (3-D) Gospel

Sermon for Willowdale CRC, August 24, 2008

Text: Colossians 1:15-23

(This is the first time I started toying around with the image of a 3D-Christianity. Initially, I was using the language of a Total Gospel, as opposed to Half-Gospels. But I am prefering the 3D image these days. I am not sure any longer if I like the way I named the three dimensions or three commissions. I am leaning towards renaming them, or at least, focusing on dimensions rather than commissions. Since this was preached in a Christian Reformed Church, you will pardon me for the Reformed emphasis for those of you readers who aren’t from the Reformed persuasion.)

I am going to start by making a very bold statement: I believe that the majority of Christians only know, proclaim and live out one dimensional gospels, rather than the total [three-dimensional] gospel. Let me repeat that: I believe that the majority of Christians only know, proclaim and live out one dimensional gospels, rather than the total gospel.  What do I mean by one-dimensional gospels? Well, first, let me explain to you what I believe the total gospel is. Then, I will explain what I mean by one-dimensional gospels. And then, I am going to explore the implications of a total gospel for our lives.

The Total 3D-Gospel: Let’s take a look at our Colossians passage. I believe that Colossians 1 is a summary of the gospel. Let me re-arrange the gospel summary of Colossians into four parts so that it is easier to follow.

Part one: All things were created by God in Jesus Christ and for Jesus, who is Lord of all. Verse 16 and following – “For by Jesus all things were created … all things were created by him and for him. … Jesus is before all things and in him all things hold together … so that in everything Jesus might have supremacy.” That’s part one.

Part two: All things were alienated or separated – fallen away – from God because of sin. Verse 21 – “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” Because of sin, we turned ourselves into enemies of God, instead of children of God.

And then, part three: All things are reconciled to God through Jesus’ death on the cross. Verses 19-20 – “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus and through Jesus to reconcile to himself all things, … by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Because we are enemies with God, God has to initiate the peace process by giving us a peace offering, which is none other than Jesus Christ, his own Son, the peace offering to bring us back in relationship to him.

Finally, part four: All things under the Lordship of Christ will be purified from sin and presented back to God. Verse 22 – “But now God has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation”. This purification and presentation will be completely fulfilled in the New Heaven and the New Earth, as it says in the book of Revelation, where all things, including things of the earth, visible and invisible, will be purified from sin and reconciled back to God.

That’s the gospel in a nutshell, my friends. All things were created by God in Jesus Christ and for Jesus, who is Lord of all things; all things were alienated from God, or separated from God and Jesus, in sin; all things are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ’s death on the cross; and all things under the Lordship of Christ will be purified from sin and presented to God. This is what I call the total gospel.

The Half Gospel: Now, isn’t this what all Christians believe? Doesn’t everybody preach this? My experience is that not all Christians preach the total gospel. Most Churches, I say, only preach one-dimensional gospels. What do I mean by one-dimensional gospels? Well, let me show a diagram to help you see this.

 Total 3D Gospel slide (right click and open in new tab to see powerpoint slide of diagram)

The total gospel is three-dimensional. For instance, let’s use a triangle. It is in 3-D: it has height, width and depth. The three dimensions of this one total gospel are three distinct commissions, commissions that overlap to some degree but part and parcel of one total gospel. These three commissions are: the discipleship commission, the social commission and, what I call, the imaging god commission. One-dimensional gospels are understandings of the gospel that reduces the total gospel into one of these three commissions, from 3-D into 1-D, or sometimes, 2-D.

One popular one-dimensional gospel out there is what I call the personal gospel. The personal gospel is the gospel of most evangelical Churches – this is the gospel that is focused on the individual, focused on having a personal relationship with Jesus, focused on saving individual souls from Hell, focused on Christians having to do evangelism. Salvation, here, is all about personal salvation. So, the personal gospel reduces the total gospel into the discipleship commission – “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey my commandments” (Matt. 28).

Another popular 1-D gospel is the social gospel. The social gospel reduces the total gospel into the social commission embodied in texts like Micah 6:8 – “what does God require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” The social gospel is what most mainline churches are preaching – the gospel is about making the world into a better place, about social justice, about helping the poor, doing good deeds, fighting injustice. The focus is not on the individual but on society. Good deeds are more important than evangelism. Both the personal gospel and the social gospel are only half gospels.

Instead the whole 3D gospel of Colossians 1 is a total gospel. It’s a gospel of total salvation, not just a personal salvation, nor simply a salvation of social restoration. This total gospel includes the personal and social gospels but it is also a creational gospel, and a cultural gospel. The third dimension is sometimes called, in Reformed theology, the Cultural Mandate, as found in Genesis 1:27-28: God created humankind in his image and gave them dominion over creation as stewards who care for the earth and who develop the potential in creation through various cultural achievements and institutions. I am calling it now the Imaging God commission. Sometimes Reformed churches are guilty of reducing the total gospel into this one dimension, as if fulfilling the cultural mandate is fulfilling all of God’s mission.

In our Colossians 1 passage the phrase, “all things” occurs 5 times in 5 verses. So often, Christians forget the “all things” part and only preach “all people”. But the apostle Paul is very, very clear in our passage that the gospel is about “all things”. Paul keeps repeating that phrase – all things in heaven and things on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created by him and for him. And through Jesus God reconciled to himself – not all people but – all things. “All things” includes all people but it also includes all animals, all plants, all the environment, all ideas and philosophies in human history, all areas of society, all the artistic creations that glorify God, all the science and technological advances that serves the Lord, all of culture and creation.

This is the gospel that I try to embody in my campus ministry. We not only focus on “spiritual” things – like studying the Bible and praying, but we also try to develop the leadership potential in all of us in order to be better Christian leaders to promote God’s kingdom out in the world. We engage ideas and issues like environmentalism, feminism, and human rights. We also do charity work by raising money for building wells in Africa and for the work of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. It’s a total salvation.

Clarifications: Now, I need to clarify something here. Total salvation is not universal salvation. Universal salvation is the teaching that everyone, every single individual, will be saved. Nobody will go to hell, so to speak. Now, I think that is stretching it too far. It seems clear from the Bible that there are people who refused to accept God’s peace offering and choose to remain as enemies of God.

Total salvation is not universal salvation. Total salvation is comprehensive not exhaustive. An Old Testament analogy might be helpful here. Remember Noah’s Ark and the story of the Flood? Who was saved from the judgment of the flood? Noah and his family, but also the animals. You have representatives from all the animals, not every single animal. You have one representative human family, but not all human individuals. So, not every single creature was saved but every kind of creature was represented in the ark. It was not a universal salvation; it was not a personal human salvation; it was a total salvation that included animals. You see the difference now?

Now, this total gospel concept includes this idea of redemption of the whole creation, suggesting that the earth will be restored. Some of you may say, “But didn’t Peter write in 2 Peter 3 that ‘the Day of Judgment will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat’?” Let’s take a quick look at 2 Peter 3:3-7,10-13.

There are two clues to understand what Peter means about the new heaven and new earth. First clue: there are two words in the original Greek language for “new”. One is “neos” and the other is “kainos”. Neos means new in time, that which has not yet been, that which has just made its appearance. Babies are neos new. New inventions are neos new (e.g. when the car was newly invented). Kainos means new in quality, that which is better than the old, or new in nature. It implies more of new and improved (e.g. new car models). Peter used kainos when he talked about the new heaven and the new earth. The same in Revelation 21, by the way – the new heaven and earth is kainos new, not neos new. It’s not that God will create a brand new earth, but God will improve and restore this present earth, so that it will become new and better than the old. New and improved, not new and original.

The second clue is that Peter referred to the Flood. Just as the old world was deluged and destroyed by water, so the present heaven and earth are reserved for destruction by fire. Now, was the world really destroyed by the flood? No, it was the same earth but put through the clean and rinse cycle, washed all the dirt off, and it’s new and improved. It’s restored to its original goodness. So, the fire that Peter says will destroy and melt the earth is probably a refining fire, fire that burns off all the impurities, so that only pure gold or pure silver is left behind. So, the whole world will be restored. Not just humans, not just our souls, but also the animal kingdom, all human structures, the whole environment. A total salvation.

Applications: Now comes a very important question. So what? So what if it’s a total gospel and not a personal or social gospel? Well, there are at least three consequences for our Christian lives from this total gospel. (You could probably think of more.)

First consequence: A gospel of total salvation means we have a total relationship with Jesus. You have probably heard the question before, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” Well, today I will answer that question with:  “No. I don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. I have a total relationship with Jesus.” Personal relationship suggests an individualistic, one-on-one private relationship. It’s personal. But my relationship with Jesus is not restricted to only my private religious life, so to speak. All areas of my life are under the Lordship of Jesus.

Secondly, a gospel of total salvation means we have a total mission from God. All areas of life and all things in the world have fallen and need to be reconciled to God. Social justice is part of God’s mission. Racial reconciliation is part of God’s mission. Saving the environment is part of God’s mission. Redeeming ideas, institutions, and human souls are part of God’s mission. Because salvation is total, God’s mission is also total. And our part in God’s mission becomes wider as well. If you are a Christian, you are missionary. There’s no excuse. Even if you are not gifted with the ability to preach the gospel to non-Christians, you are gifted in something that contributes to one of these three dimensions. We carry out this total mission as part of a community of missionaries, part of God’s team, as it were.

Thirdly, and finally, a total relationship with Jesus should feed and shape a total commitment to join God’s total mission. Total commitment. Our commitment to God’s mission should be nothing less than someone’s commitment to a spouse in marriage. For better or for worse, in sickness or in health, in rich or in poor, we must be committed with our whole beings, a total commitment, to God and his mission, even when it may cost us some sacrifices. Are we getting too comfortable in our cultural positions and status? Are we committed enough to God that we are willing to sacrifice, willing to face difficult consequences, willing to give up higher pay, for instance, for the sake of God’s total mission?

Let us pray.

Notes: 1) Kainos & Neos, 2 Peter 3 reference from David Lawrence, Heaven … It’s Not the End of the World! (Scripture Union 1995) pp. 42-43

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