If you were asked to sum up the mission of Jesus, the gospel, in a sentence or two, what would you say? I’ve asked a number of people this question, and I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that if you asked 100 Christians to sum up the mission of Jesus, ninety-five would essentially say Jesus came to forgive our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die.
There is nothing necessarily incorrect about that statement, but it is incomplete at best. The heart of the gospel is not forgiveness; it is redemption. Redemption requires forgiveness, but it is just one side of the coin. The other side is life. When Jesus speaks of his purpose he says things like, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). So we are right to say that eternal life is a key component of Jesus’ mission, but we are wrong when we assume that eternal life begins after death.
In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard writes that we are saved to life, abundant life, and that eternal, abundant life begins the moment we begin to follow Christ. He writes that redemption is “the impartation of life,” and that “God’s seminal redemptive act towards us is the communication of a new kind of life.” If we insist on focusing only on the forgiveness component of salvation,” the body and therefore the concrete life we find ourselves in are lost to the redemptive process.”
But even suggesting that life is the heart of the gospel is somewhat limited. The heart of the gospel is not just life but life in the kingdom of God. You don’t have to read very far into the Gospels to realize that Jesus is constantly teaching about and announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God, and one of the more consistent declarations about the kingdom is Jesus’ proclamation of its arrival. “The time has come; the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). He sends out the twelve apostles to declare that the “The kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 10:7), and he teaches us to pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10, Luke 11:2).
The kingdom is absolutely central to the mission of Jesus, and I would argue that the heart of the gospel is the kingdom of God present on earth. Far too often we believe and live as if the kingdom is a future reality. It is true that we wait in hope to experience the full realization of the kingdom, but it is not true that it is wholly absent from our current experiences. N.T. Wright teaches that the Kingdom of God “was and is breaking into the present world.”
Jesus’ mission is to bring kingdom life to earth. He didn’t say, “I have come that once they die they may to go heaven and begin eternal life.” He came to bring kingdom life, and the good news is that this life doesn’t have to wait until heaven to begin. Jesus intends for us to have abundant life now, and though the full experience may be in the future, we can begin to experience it more and more fully the moment we become his disciples.
I believe a proper understanding of the kingdom of God present and active in the world today is a key component of the gospel that we are missing today. If we don’t get this, we assume eternal life begins after death and salvation will have no impact on our everyday lives. As a result, people write things like this, “Every day, the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change.”