What is the proper response to the gospel?
The answer to that question will, of course, depend on how you define the gospel. Last week I wrote a bit about how Scot McKnight contends that the Good News isn't the "Steps to Salvation." Rather, the gospel is the declaration that Jesus is Lord, that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in Jesus of Nazareth. This is why Jesus himself preached the gospel, well before his crucifixion. For example, after his baptism in the book of Mark Jesus is observed preaching the gospel:
Mark 1.14-15What is the gospel according to Jesus? It is the declaration that "the kingdom of God has come near." Similarly, when Jesus sends out his disciples in Luke 10 they proclaim the same message:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Luke 10.8-11As I reflected on this during Advent I began to wonder if we need to rethink the "proper response" to the gospel. Specifically, the soterian gospel has tended to emphasize a response of faith. Cognitive assent. But when we come to see the gospel as the declaration that the "kingdom of God has come near" the issue is less about belief than repentance. Jesus declares in Mark "Repent and believe the good news." The primacy of repentance is even more clear in the gospel of Matthew:
“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’
Matthew 4.17The role of repentance is also highlighted at the very beginning of Mark (and echoed in Matthew and Luke) when we take in the message of John the Baptist:
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Mark 1.1-5The message of the Baptist is what caught my attention during Advent. Prior to Jesus's entrance John is "preparing the way for the Lord" by "preaching a baptism of repentance." To be sure, faith is a prerequisite for all this. Obviously, you'd have to believe John's message before undergoing his baptism of repentance. But this is banal. Such a faith doesn't, in itself, constitute a full and proper response to the gospel. Rather, the response we see is a repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is how the heart is properly prepared for responding to the kingdom coming.
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
This makes sense if we consider the gospel to be, as Scot McKnight has argued, the declaration that Jesus is King. Kings don't demand belief or faith. You don't believe in kings. No, you obey kings. You give a king allegiance. So when the kingdom comes the proper response is behavioral, a reconfiguration of loyalties. A new apocalyptic reality has been revealed and we are called upon to readjust our lives to this new reality. This is why the ministry of John the Baptist was necessary.
Why has the role of repentance been deemphasized in many sectors of Christianity? One answer, I think, has to do with what Scot McKnight has pointed out: We've reduced the gospel to salvation. Thus, the crux of Christian life becomes cognitive assent (i.e., faith) rather than readjusting our lives in the face of the gospel--that Jesus is Lord and the rule/kingdom of God has broken upon us. As I described above, it's so much easier to believe that Jesus is King than to obey him as King. The point being, for great swaths of Christianity the message and ministry of John the Baptist has no place. We don't tell people that, to accept the gospel, they need to prepare themselves. All you need to do is believe in Jesus and say the Sinner's Prayer. Compare that with John's baptism of repentance and his message:
Luke 3.10-14When people ask "What must I do to be saved?" Christians don't, as a rule, say things like "If you have two shirts give one to the poor." We don't see that action--giving away excess possessions--as an example of responding to the gospel. But it is. It's readjusting your life to the new rule of God.
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
A second and related reason for the eclipse of repentance is that repentance has become a morbid concept. Christians are ashamed of repentance because it doesn't sell well with the public. And this is understandable. If you've grown up with toxic, guilt-driven fundamentalism the word repentance conjures up notions of shame, self-loathing, and a wrathful, judgmental God. When we hear "Repent!" many of us hear "You're going to hell ya damned sinner!"
But this is where I think the ideas of preparation and allegiance come in handy. Repentance is preparing for the reign of God. It's not about getting down on yourself. It's about clearing out the rubbish and clutter of our lives. Sort of like spring cleaning. (Literally, at times, a spring cleaning. To the point of going through your stuff and giving it away.) More, repentance is about loyalty and allegiance. It's about hearing the declaration of the gospel and switching sides. It has less to do with guilt than about joining up with a new team.