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Summer Reading Group: Deep Gospel

This is the fourth post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM/re-church Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from chapters of Deep Church, by Jim Belcher. You can find the reading schedule here.

Chapter 6 – Deep Gospel

Belcher‘s conversation with one of his students reminded me of ones I’ve had over the years with numerous young adults who desire a dynamic and relevant faith. Johnny, Belcher’s student, expresses his longing for a Christianity that emphasizes both “salvation and service” (110).(1) Traditionalists, according to Belcher, have tended to focus on salvation of the individual, whereas the emergent movement focuses on service and changing the world. Belcher argues for an understanding of the gospel that harmonizes orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Against understandings of Christianity that reduce the gospel to a personal “fire insurance” policy, emergent writers have emphasized Jesus’ proclamation of the present kingdom of God and his teachings on the Sermon on the Mount. This is a public faith that has political implications as individuals and communities live it out. Those in the traditional church have responded by pejoratively labeling such an understanding of the gospel as another version of “liberalism,” “social gospel,” or “liberation theology.”

While Belcher is appreciative of the emergent churches critique, and quick to defend the traditionalist critique of it as unfair, he worries that certain important teachings are downplayed in unhealthy ways in the emergent church. How so? There is little emphasis on the cross, atonement, and justification. This for Belcher is central to the gospel; without out it, “Christianity is just one more system of morality or man-made religion” (122).

But unlike those in the traditionalist camp, Belcher emphasizes that a proper understanding of God’s action for us in Christ should fuel our own action for others. Tim Keller, a mentor of Belcher, suggests that the Gospel and message of justification by faith leads us to justice. Keller quotes John Stott, claiming that “God is a God of both justice and justification.”(2)

Belcher’s own church articulates “the gospel” as follows:

The gospel is at the center of all we do. The ‘gospel’ is the good news that through Jesus, the Messiah, the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the world. Through The Savior, God has established his reign. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship with God, that kingdom power comes upon and begins to work through us. We witness this radical new way of living by our renewed lives, beautiful community, social justice, and culture transformation. This good news brings new life. The gospel motivates, guides, and empowers every aspect of our living and worship (121).

In the Adventist community, debates about “the gospel” have centered around the relationship between justification and sanctification. If we are honest about our history, an overemphasis on the latter has lead to legalism. The apostle Paul’s declaration about the centrality of the cross (3) coupled with Ellen White’s own writings on this theme has been a helpful corrective.(4) In recent years, our emphasis as a denomination has been on the grace and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which informs our appreciation for His continued ministry in the sanctuary and fuels our hope for his soon coming. This has, however, led us to a focus that sides us with the traditionalists on Belcher’s model; we emphasize what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. The emphasis is still “the message”, and personal morality, and less on service to the world.

Thankfully, this, too, seems to be changing. Two years ago, leaders from four divisions of our church gathered together at the annual 180º Symposium to explore the incredible loss of young adults streaming out of the back door. The published results Ministering with Millennials outlined five key areas of need; “service” was one of them. More and more church leaders are recognizing that it is a critical component of living our faith. I’m proud that under our church umbrella we have we have organizations like ADRA and Adventist Community Services that focus exclusively on this.

I think that the third way that Belcher tries to articulate is one that is already documented in our denomination; we are just not all behind it. Rather, it seems we are drawing deep lines in the sand and taking sides on side issues. (Almost no one I know in the Adventist church is a “liberal” in Belcher’s sense of the word.) In many cases, we mix up personal preferences over central principles of the gospel.

Another point of tension in our church in living out the deep gospel has been the inadvertent suggestion that in light of Jesus’ second coming there is no need to care for this planet or confront the serious issues it faces. We have shied away from politics and engaging our local community in service; this, unfortunately, has been to the determent of the Gospel Commission. I believe, however, belief in the second coming should fuel hopeful action in the world.

Belcher closes the chapter with a description of his church wrestling with a practical question: “What is God calling us to do” (120)? Their appreciation for what Christ has done leads them to seek the shalom of their city. Belcher personally challenges me to live out my faith in the world in light of what Jesus, “the One”, has done. It also leaves me wondering what more I can practically do for the ones who have left, have wandered away, or remains in the fold disconnected from Jesus.


Japhet is married to Becky née (Crooker), and they have two sons, Joshua and Jonah. He currently serves as the Director for the Center of Youth Evangelism and Chaplain for Missions at Andrews University.

  1. Interestingly, this is the same motto of the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference Youth Department.
  2. Q Conference in Chicago, May 2010
  3. Galatians 6:14
  4. See, for example, Acts of the Apostles, p.210.
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