"As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:9)
I keep saying to myself that there has to be an explanation why so many millions of people claim to be born-again followers of Jesus Christ, attending nearly 250,000 churches—around 3,000 of those mega-churches—with a vibrant and growing Christian subculture of music, television, books and literature, education, Internet presence, and even their own Yellow Pages.
As I said, there has to be an explanation why, given all this, the morals and culture of America continue to decline away from the teaching of Scripture, the young are abandoning their Christian upbringing in growing numbers, and the public square continues devoid of any far-ranging, seriously taken Christian voice. There simply has to be an explanation for this.
And I think I have it. It harks back to a chesterton comment back around the turn of the 20th century. It's not that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been tried and is simply found wanting. It's that the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the Gospel of the Kingdom—has not been tried.
The Gospel of the Kingdom
Jesus came preaching a particular message to the people of His generation. The gospel writers refer to it as "the Gospel of the Kingdom." The Good News that Jesus announced had as its focus an objective reality that the New Testament refers to as the Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35). What is that?
The Kingdom of God is the divine rule that Jesus came to bring into the affairs of men. It is an administration of righteousness, peace, and joy which we may enter by the Holy Spirit, through the new birth which comes by grace through faith (Romans 14:17; John 3:1). The Kingdom of God centers on Jesus, who is its King, and His call to follow Him in a life of self-denying service to the glory of God (Mark 10:42).
To enter this Kingdom is to be born again to a life set apart for God, characterized by obedience to the Law of God (1 John 2:1). God gives His Kingdom to those who truly love Him, who renounce the desires, doodads, and deeds of the world and the flesh, and who invest their strength in becoming rich in faith (James 2:5).
The Kingdom of God is not just a reality to be acknowledged and confessed; it is a realm of power, real spiritual power, in which, increasingly, all things are made new and every aspect of a person's life is reconciled to God, unto the praise of the glory of His grace (1 Corinthians 1:20; 2 Corinthians 2:17).
They who enter this Kingdom may be identified by their fervor in seeking to realize more of its presence and power (Matthew 6:33), their prayers for its coming on earth as in heaven (Matthew 6:10), their dutiful obedience to the holy and righteous and good Law of God (Ezekiel 36:26; Romans 7:12), and their faithfulness in living as witnesses to their risen and reigning Lord (Acts 1:8).
Where the Kingdom of God takes root in a person's heart, transforming grace begins to exert real spiritual power to make all things new, and to turn a person's world upright before the Lord.
It is altogether understandable, therefore, why the sum of Jesus' preaching and teaching is often reported as consisting in the words, "The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, therefore, and believe the Good News."
Jesus announced that a new era had begun in human affairs, in which a new King was on the throne of heaven and earth, unfolding a new economy, according to a new agenda, demanding that all who would follow Him embrace a new priority, and offering a new hope to men—the hope of the glory of God.
The Good News in this astonishing announcement is that, by entering into the Kingdom of God, men can know liberation from sin—its power, effects, and condemnation. Thus free from the shackles of sin they experience the grace and truth of God with transforming effects in every area of life. They begin to bear new kinds of fruit through the work of the Spirit of God within them, fruit consistent with righteousness, peace, and joy. They experience power that makes all things new, enabling them to reconcile every area of their lives back to God for His pleasure and glory. And, by virtue of the ongoing, increasing realization of this Kingdom reality, they know assurance of everlasting life with God in a new heavens and a new earth.
Truly, the announcement concerning the Kingdom of God is Good News—Gospel! The Gospel of the Kingdom is the true Gospel. Anything other or less than this is another gospel, which, as Paul makes plain, is no gospel at all.
Liberal Christianity, most readers will agree, is not Christianity at all, or, at best, a corrupt version. As J. Gresham Machen argued so eloquently in the last century, liberal Christianity has many appealing features, and much to commend it. In many ways it is a quite fascinating and alluring religion. It even uses all the language of Christianity and holds Jesus in high esteem. But for all that, liberal Christianity just isn't Christianity. Indeed, Machen argued, it's not even close.
What about the gospel that is heard in so many churches today? The gospel that says, "Jesus died to forgive your sins and to bring you to heaven when you die"? Is that the Gospel? Rather, is that the whole Gospel? The Gospel of the Kingdom? While that statement is certainly true, it doesn't sound as rich, full, comprehensive, and all-engaging as what we outlined earlier as the Gospel of the Kingdom. And it is not widely apparent that those who have embraced this message are evidencing the kind of whole-life transformation Jesus demonstrated and promised, or that those first turn-the-world-upside-down Christians experienced.
But is it not true that the Gospel says that Jesus died for our sins so that we could go to heaven? Yes it does. But that is not the same as saying that Jesus' death to grant forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe is the whole Gospel. And if that's not the whole Gospel, then can we say that it's the Gospel at all? The proclamation that Jesus died for our sins so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life is not, in fact, what C. S. Lewis referred to as mere Christianity—Christianity at its most basic. Rather, I would say that this message that promises forgiveness and eternal life to all who merely profess belief in Jesus—this gospel which is roundly proclaimed in the vast majority of churches throughout the land—should be referred to as near Christianity.
It's rather like saying that the Good News is that Jesus provided an example for us to follow. Is that true? Of course. But is it the Gospel? Hardly. Or it's like saying the Good News means you have a reason to do good works on behalf of others. Is that true? Certainly. But is it the Gospel? Not at all.
The Good News that Jesus and the apostles proclaimed is a message so comprehensive, so altogether new and radical, that it requires deep-seated, heart-felt repentance, complete surrender to the risen Christ, and whole-hearted belief leading to obedience in every area of life. It is the message of the Kingdom of God. Anything other than the Gospel of the Kingdom is not the Gospel at all, but a form of near Christianity that holds out promises germane to the Kingdom, prescribes means related to the Kingdom, but holds back on making the full vision and demands of the Kingdom clear to those who would enjoy the conditions of blessedness.
Near Christianity, therefore, leaves little in the way of Kingdom evidence in the lives and churches of those who embrace it. It leaves what it promises, and what people who embrace it desire: a sense of forgiveness, and the peace of mind that accompanies that, and a tentative hope of going to heaven when we die. As for power to transform sinful lives into beacons of holiness, goodness, beauty, and truth—well, that's something to affirm, but not necessarily something to seek.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel..." (Galatians 1:6). Did you catch that verb—deserting? It wasn't that the Galatians denied that Jesus was Savior. Not at all. Or even that He was Lord. They simply chose to minimize the power of His saving grace by adding to the Gospel in certain ways and detracting from it in others. So, their professions of faith notwithstanding, Paul said that they were deserting the true Gospel, the Gospel of the Kingdom.
In our day he might say to the churches in America, "I am astonished that you who profess to believe in Jesus evidence so little of the reality of the Gospel of the Kingdom. What did you believe when you believed in Jesus? From what did you turn, and to what, when you repented? What do you hope for, if not to know God in His glory and be transformed to live out that glory in every detail of your life?" He might well conclude that our generation has settled for a form of near Christianity, not the Gospel of the Kingdom which he and all the apostles, following Jesus, proclaimed with such boldness, and at the risk of their lives.
Anything other than the Gospel of the Kingdom may be like Christianity, or near Christianity, but it is not the Good News of Jesus and Paul. Near Christianity is not the christianity of scripture and, therefore, is no Good News at all.
Have you received the Gospel of the Kingdom? To what evidence in your life might you point to convince someone that that is true?
T. M. Moore is dean of the BreakPoint Centurions Program and principal of the fellowship of ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are Culture Matters (Brazos) and The Hidden Life, a handbook of poems, songs, and spiritual exercises (waxed tablet). Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, Va.