Making the benefits of the gospel run the narrative ruins the narrative
Sport at all levels is a game of teamwork, competition, a drive toward winning, and the joy of accomplishment made especially intense for the winners. The benefit of sport for the athlete is the satisfaction of preparation, the thrill of competition, and exhilaration for success and winning. The successful athlete often competes for the dual prize of pride (in being better) and glory (adulation for accomplishment).
Some athletes are in it for the glory, for the dominance, for the status of being the best. Such athletes, I want to emphasize, are “in it” for the glory. The team, no matter how many times one tips one’s hat to the team, is secondary to the personal glory. The aim is to be seen as the best.
As such, the entire game is turned on its head toward its benefits. These most successful of athletes compete with their eyes on selection to the All Star team, for the Hall of Fame, and for outlandish salaries. They are interviewed on TV, on the radio, and they become household names. This brandishes their success and empowers them to drive for more of it. They are recognized on the streets, in restaurants, in hotel lobbies and at airports. They may be annoyed at times with their recognition but they’d have it no other way – they are jealous when others get more glory, more headlines, more money. They love the buzz of the crowd when their name is announced. They bask in the delirium of the game-winning RBI, the grand slam, the buzzer beater, the shot on goal that drops the other team late in the game.
The drive for glory makes these players better players, and so it can make their teams better. But a team full of glory-makers tends to turn players against one another. Glory-makers tend to speak of players who accept lesser roles as “great team players,” which means “that person feeds my glory.”
The team player plays to win and the team matters more than personal glory. Who makes the shot, who gets the RBI, who scores the goal doesn’t matter as long as the team wins. The game is not for personal glory and benefit but for a team win in a team game. What matters is “Chicago” and “LA” and “Manchester.”
You may now see what I’m doing there: those who turn the gospel into its benefits and then construct the gospel for the sake of personal benefits (salvation, redemption, justification, transformation, meaning in life, going to heaven) are glory-makers like the selfish athlete. As sport is about the city and its team, so the gospel is about God and his Son Jesus. Yes, for sure, the gospel brings benefits but it is first about Jesus – the gospel story is the story of Israel that finds its climax in the story of Jesus – and then about us. (See King Jesus Gospel)
Look at the gospel summary passages in the New Testament and you will see the point (1 Cor 15:1-28). Where’s the focus?
“What’s in it for us?,” is the question asked by the one who turns the gospel around into a benefit-package. Benefits themselves can be distorted and benefits can distort the gospel.
Evangelism that focuses on Jesus and tells people about Jesus and draws people to the glory who is Jesus have it right; those who entice people into the benefits that come from the gospel are turning it around. Robert Jenson in his Systematic Theology, says this: “gospel messengers,” are ones who say “We are not here to entice you into our religion by benefits allegedly found only in it. We are here to introduce you to the true god, for whatever he can do with you – which may well be suffering and oppression” (1.51). That’s right.
The song of Moses was about the Horse and the Rider (Exod 15):
I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.
The Song of the Redeemed is about God and the Lamb:
They sing a new song:
You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.”
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, “Hallelujah!
Salvation and glory and power to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
The songs of the redeemed are about God first and foremost, and only because they are about God do they tell their personal story as well.
This is about order: first Christology, second soteriology.