In January, Crossway Books published Faithmapping: A Gospel Atlas for Your Spiritual Journey. In it, Daniel Montgomery and I unpack a vision for how the Whole Gospel creates a Whole Church on mission for the Whole World.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting more on our vision for the Whole Gospel – which, many will recognize – is a variation on the tri-perspectival view of the gospel articulated by John Frame and Tim Keller. (Indeed, in the introduction toFaithmapping, we make mention of the fact that we see ourselves as “Keller for Dummies.”) The Gospel can be seen in three aspects: The gospel of the Kingdom, the gospel of the Cross, and the gospel of grace. These three ideas are used interchangeably in the New Testament, each concept deepens and enriches the others.
Part of the goal of the book was to point out the danger of emphasizing one aspect of the Gospel over and against the others. Lately I’ve been reflecting on another angle of this: the way that these three aspects speak to three different ways of understanding sin.
In a similar way to the gospel, sin itself gets debated amongst Christians. What’s the best way to understand it? As an issue of personal responsibility? As a systemic evil? As principalities and powers? As a pitiable disease?
Sin and the Kingdom
If we think about sin in relationship to God’s Kingdom, it offers an interesting perspective. The Kingdom of God is announced as an invading force, overcoming the defenses of Hell . It’s at war with the principalities and powers of the world. Its forward movement means an end to injustice and suffering.
In a sense, then, we can understand sin as the resident evil in the world; the often impersonal, dark, oppressive force that seems to crush us. When Christians talk about the gospel overcoming the world, this is what they mean.
Sin and the Cross
With the Gospel of the Cross, we have yet another perspective. Because we understand Jesus’ death as a substitute for us, the Gospel of the Cross reveals sin as a personal responsibility. We don’t speak of sin generally, but particularly. My sin. Your sin. The resident evil in our hearts.
Sin and Grace
Grace provides yet another angle on sin. Where the Kingdom reveals sin as a broad-reaching corrupting power and the Cross reveals it as a personal responsibility, grace reminds us that sinners are pitiable. Jesus, who had more reason to be sickened by sinners than anyone else in history, befriended sinners.
Overemphasizing One Aspect Over Others
These three “angles” on sin provide balance, especially when we think about how we respond to sin in others. The Kingdom aspect helps us account for sin and suffering – for the ways that, at times, evil seems omnipresent, but hard to “pin” on a single individual. Evil in the world – present in wars, unjust economies, and disease – has its roots in an overarching evil kingdom.
The Cross helps us remember that no one is innocent, and that however unjust or oppressed we may be, we also bear the responsibility of our own sin. And both of these aspects are tempered by the Gospel of Grace, which reminds us that God himself has mercy on sinners, and that sin is tragic and sad.
Overemphasizing the Kingdom-aspect of sin can lead to understandings of it that are purely social or political. Overemphasizing the Cross-aspect can lead to moralistic, overly individualized understandings, which can cause us (like Job’s friends) to be graceless, perpetually looking for someone to blame for suffering. Overemphasizing the grace-aspect can lead to licentious, permissive, and antinomian attitudes towards sin.
But together, these three aspects can shape a pastoral theology – both in preaching the gospel to others and preaching it to ourselves. We can ask, “Am I overemphasizing one aspect or another? Am I acting without grace, or without an eye for responsibility?”
Consider your own wrestling with sin, or a recent confrontation with sin in others. What aspect did you gravitate towards? How might you naturally “lean” when thinking about sin?