By J. R. Burkholder
J.R. Burkholder is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Goshen College
[This is the first of a three-part series about the need to rethink the way we as Mennonites understand and proclaim the gospel, which I prepared at the invitation of Susan Mark Landis. I have set forth my ideas in the form of numbered theses, for testing with brothers and sisters concerned about the intersection of evangelism, peacemaking, and congregational life. What you have here represents work that is still very much in process, not yet ready for the general public. It is intended as the basis for conversation among persons with similar concerns. I invite readers toward thinking, reflection and reaction that will carry the conversation forward.]
PART ONE. THE GOSPEL OF PEACE. Fall 1993
All too often we who seek to proclaim the “gospel of peace” begin with the peace teachings of Jesus, the hard sayings from the Sermon on the Mount, the call to crossbearing, the cost of discipleship, etc. These things are of course true and important, but they probably scare people away, rather than inspiring them. The message of the gospel must be good news!
On the other hand, many efforts at evangelism present a narrow and incomplete gospel. “Getting saved” is reduced to creating good feelings about yourself and God, along with a fire escape to heaven. But our call to peace is way “out of sync” with that familiar evangelical focus; the biblical truth about getting saved is much bigger than many typical proclamations. God promises a holistic salvation which includes deliverance from fear and insecurity into the realm of God’s well-being, or shalom.
TOWARD AN ANSWER
3. We must emphasize that the authentic gospel of peace really is good news. The Christian way of peace must be seen and taught, not so much as a burden, but as built into God’s way of salvation. New believers need to understand that because they are loved and accepted by God, they are invited to claim the promise of safety and security, even in the face of enemies.
4. Therefore we need to refocus our proclamation of salvation. The way of peace must be presented as a gift. It is the fruit, the liberation, that salvation brings. Being saved enables one to live in freedom from fear, so that one can give up reliance on violence. God’s promise of safety and security permeates the Psalms, and comes to full flower in the New Testament.
5. The gospel of peace not only offers us deliverance from our enemies, it also sets us free from the destructive cycle of violence at all levels of life. Knowing that one belongs to the family of God, the believer is enabled to live out the call to justice, peace, service and selfgiving. “Only those who know they are loved and rejoice in that love can be true peacemakers, because the intimate knowledge of being loved sets us free to look beyond the boundaries of death and to speak and act fearlessly for peace.” ( Henri Nouwen quoted in Branding,p. 29)
6. Several major New Testament passages clearly hold together the several dimensions of God’s peacemaking work, including both reconciliation between God and humankind, and reconciliation among humans. The crucial texts include Romans 5:1-11; II Cor. 5:11-21; Ephesians 2:1-22; Colossians 1:15-20. But the tragedy is that for much of Christian history, the gospel presentation has separated these themes. As Dale Brown has written: “The tendency to separate God’s love of his enemies from our love of our enemies is one of the heresies of the doctrine of atonement. The saving of souls and the love of the enemy are intimately related.” (p. 21)
7. The “gospel of peace” theme in the New Testament may be summed up in this pattern:
a. The God of peace makes peace with humankind through the work of Christ, making possible three further aspects of peace:
c. the peace of God – (subjective) inner wellbeing and blessing (Rom. 8; Phil. 4)
(This outline is more fully developed in chapter 4 of Burkholder and Bender.)
8. Why has this holistic view been missing from so much of Christianity? That’s too big a story to get into here, but it’s been observed that the doctrinal tradition of the Western church, in speaking about salvation through Jesus, has been limited almost exclusively to the language of law and the temple cult: justification, sanctification, redemption. By more attention to the biblical passages noted above, however, a much broader scenario is opened up. A New Testament gospel of peace incorporates the themes of well-being and security that pervade the O.T. concept of “shalom.” ( See pp. 188-89 in Mauser)
9. Although these remarks about the history of theology may sound rather heavy, it must be emphasized that what we are talking about here is really not that sophisticated or abstract. Lois Barrett, Dale Brown, and John Stoner, among others, have done a lot of good clear writing (see the bibliography) on the basic gospel message of salvation and peace.
10. But is this the gospel that is being proclaimed in our churches and in our evangelistic efforts? Many of the impressions that I pick up suggest that too often our gospel sounds no different from the usual radio and television preachers. And it’s rather clear that in general, we get what we preach. That is, Pentecostal preaching creates Pentecostal piety, Calvinist preaching evokes Calvinist lifestyle, and so on. Is it any wonder that the gospel message of peace is threatened?