The soterian gospel smacks too often of the very thing it seeks to fight: that is, it is often selfish and it rides, ironically, on the waves of liberalism. The essence of liberalism was the reshaping of Christian theology through the grinder of modernity. Authority shifted in liberal theology from the tradition (Scripture, orthodoxy, creeds, confessions) to a more subjective orientation and used cultural progress to measure the good and true.
The ultimate sign of Western liberalism’s rise in culture was the happiness movement of the 17th-19th centuries, during which time — and you can read all of this in Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History — Enlightenment thinking and the development of science led to the belief that humans could each become happier and happier, and a Golden Age would arrive.
My contention is that soterian gospel was formed in the push of that era, and the soterian gospel is the approach to the gospel I criticize in The King Jesus Gospel. It is too much shaped by a selfish concern of what God has done for me.
Revivalism, and I don’t want to dismiss revivalism completely, reshaped the gospel in this direction. How so? It made the gospel about what it can do for me (and my happiness) and give me eternal life to boot. Here’s the sign of the reorientation (and I’m not at all criticizing the importance of the personal decision, the utter love God has for us — each of us, nor of the importance of the saving benefit of the gospel — I’m criticizing here the reorientation of everything toward what benefits me):
The personal benefit of the gospel — forgiveness, justification, happiness, success, peace, eternal life, heaven (another possession) — became the driver of the gospel.
What I mean is that the entire message of the Bible was reshaped to be a message about how God loves me and that God has done all his great deeds just for me. And the gospel became what God has done to save me. The ultimate in this regard is when someone says “Had you been the only sinner in the world, God would have sent his Son just for you!”
The sign of this approach is that we are always itching to hear this: What’s in it for me? But how does this passage help me? What is the application to me from this passage? Again, we cannot call into question the importance of our core belief that God is love or that God loves us, but instead the conversion of all things in the Bible’s message to what benefits us.
Here’s a good example: when it comes to the resurrection of Christ, the question is too often about what is the benefit? I get to go to heaven when I die or I have life eternal. But the Bible’s emphasis on resurrection is cosmic, creational and has to do with Jesus reigning (and our reigning with him). The former emphasis is what I’m calling the selfish; the latter is apostolic and biblical and traditional.
Instead of having a doxological orientation (how does this bring glory to God) or a christological orientation (what does this say about Jesus, King and Lord) or a theocentric orientation (how does this all reveal God), we too often judge whether something is good by asking selfish pragmatics: How does this help me?! The late Robert Webber, some of you will know, complained that too much of contemporary evangelicalism had gone into pragmatics, and that is what I’m calling the selfish in this post.
This is where John Piper’s emphasis on God’s glory or Matt Chandler‘s recent re-emphasis of God’s glory are dead-on right (though we ought to make this not only about God, as in Father, but also about God as Son, Jesus Christ, and it is not always clear to me that the emphasis is sufficiently christological). Here are Matt Chandler’s words:
He told crowds that many evangelicals have misconceptions about God, believing that He is really about them, that everything God does is because of them, and that “God looks at all His massive creation and is in awe of our greatness.”
But, he said, that’s where they go wrong.
“Yes, Jesus loves you; yes, Jesus is for you … but ultimately God’s motivation in all of that isn’t so you and Him can be boys.” Rather, he said, God’s real motivation is for His glory and renown.
The point I want to make is that the soterian gospel is too often an individualistic, even at times incredibly selfish and self-serving, reshaping of the Story. The Story of the Bible is about God directing all of history toward Jesus as King and toward the arrival of the New Jerusalem where God will be all in all. We join in on that, but we are not the Center of the Story. The soterian gospel makes us too much the center of the Story.
Any gospel that is not God- and Jesus- and Spirit-centered is not the full gospel and is not driven by the right categories. Any gospel that is soterian shaped is, to one degree or another, shaped by the liberal impulse to make life about good ol’ me!