One Gospel, Different Aspects
Remember and anticipate. Look back and look forward. As Christians, we are often reminded to recall and meditate on the finished work of Christ. And we are also reminded to look to the future—to the King’s return—when he will come back to renew, restore, and make all things right. Now the question is: Which one is the gospel?
Most of us would probably say the former, but really, it’s a trick question. Both are the gospel. Both are God’s redemptive plan for the world. One simply focuses on the past aspect of the gospel, and the other on the future aspect of the gospel. I find it analogous to how we ought not and cannot think of one person of the Trinity, say the Father, without also thinking the Son and the Spirit, for they are one God.
Similarly, we ought not and cannot think of the past gospel without also thinking of the future gospel. Christ’s finished work always has his return in view, so that meditating upon his finished work directs us to long for his return. And the converse is true—when we look to the future and the renewal of all things we are directed backwards, grounding our future hope in what Jesus accomplished in history.
What are We Missing?
However, there’s a problem with our past and future gospel. Where’s the present? What even is the present gospel? The fact that we struggle to articulate the present aspect of the gospel shows just how much it is missing from the gospel according to evangelicalism. And we are sorely in need of the present gospel.
This is not to say that recovering the present gospel is the key that will take us to the next level of the Christian life, overcoming all struggles with sin and the meanness of our hearts. But rather that we are poorer for having neglected it. For while the past gospel can assure us of forgiveness, and the future gospel can give us hope in the face of injustice, we often struggle to see how the good news applies to now and our lives in the in-between.
Neglecting the present gospel has many consequences, but one way the church is poorer for it is in our counseling. We tell sufferers in our midst, “Just fix your eyes on eternity and heaven—where there will be no more tears and your refined faith will be revealed as more precious than gold.” Or we tell them, “Just remember what Christ has done for you on the cross—you’re forgiven! Your sins are gone!” Though both are true and good, they can also seem hyper-spiritualized and out of touch with reality. Such counsel can inadvertently seem to belittle or bypass their present situation of pain and sorrow. Should there not be good news for them in the present, as they walk through darkness of loss and hurt?
When the gospel is only past and future, it can feel like good news out there—important, life-changing—but difficult to square with the grind and pressure of daily life. It can be like a box of wedding photos on the coffee table. You’d never throw them away, you cherish them, and you even look at them occasionally. And when you do, joy wells up and your eyes mist over. But these photos don’t do as much as you hope when the air is thick with rumors of layoffs, when the kids are trying your patience, when you’re caught in the grip of addiction, or when your relationships seem to crumble into silt.
The Good News of Now
That’s why we also need good news here and now. The good news of the present, that you, Christian, are vitally joined to Jesus Christ by faith through the Spirit in this very moment. His resurrection life and power are yours even now. While your past-present identity is forgiven sinner, your present-present identity is Holy Spirit-empowered new creation, and your future-present identity is glorious co-inheritor of the Earth, sister or brother to the Son of the great King. All three are necessary. All three are vital to the Christian life.
Take for instance, our fight against sin. We need the grounding of “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We need the hope “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” And we need the vigor of knowing that we are “strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” For through our union with Christ, being joined to him, on whom the Spirit was poured out in fullness, we too have received that same Spirit. The Spirit that allowed men of old to defeat enemies and perform miracles is the same that now today allows us to defeat indwelling enemies and perform miracles of dying to self and living for Christ.
The present gospel then is union with Christ, the reality of being branches joined to the true Vine, a reality that is already present, yet that we are called to embrace and appropriate—“Abide in me.” And though our being united with Christ, our being in him is in many ways far more expansive and foundational than how I’ve explained it here, it does encapsulate the gospel in the present tense.
We need not only look back to Christ’s finished work or forward to his return. We can look to him who is intimately joined to us even now, who walks with us through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the valley of the shadow of death. We have wedding photos and pictures of a new home that awaits, but we also have the friend, the brother, and the bridegroom himself, going before and behind us who says, “I am in you and you are in me.” Let us not neglect the gospel of the present.