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Introduction

On October 31 we celebrated Reformation Day, commemorating Luther’s nailing 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg 500 years ago two years from now. But the Reformation must be an ongoing fact. The church must be constantly reforming, espousing “a theology of permanent reformation.”[1]

As Reformation people we take the Gospel and salvation seriously. I fear that sometimes, however, we become imbalanced in our soteriological (salvation) emphases. For instance, we stress justification, being declared righteous before God’s heavenly tribunal. That was certainly Luther’s great soteriological concern or, some might say say, his, or at least his followers’, almost exclusive soteriological concern.[2]

Or if we’re evangelical in a more recent sense, we greatly emphasize regeneration, being “born again.” Of course, the Bible teaches both of these Gospel truths, and it teaches them emphatically, and there could be no biblical soteriology (salvation doctrine) without them. But these are not the only Gospel truths we need to understand, and I’m afraid that this serious imbalance in not emphasizing other truths has helped contribute to some of the great cultural evils that surround us today.

That’s a serious charge, and it’s one on which I’d like to elaborate. Upfront I will tell you that the root problem is that Protestants often haven’t understood the structural role of the family in the Gospel. One effect of this omission has been to undermine the family in our culture, not just the church.

We might begin by considering Mary Eberstadt‘s thesis that the West lost God by losing the family, not vice versa.[3] This thesis sounds strange to us because we tend to think that people become anti-God first and then anti-family as result. But if the family is part of what the Gospel means, if we lose the family, we lose the Gospel — and eventually God himself.

Let’s consider Gospel truths in the Bible that Protestants often gloss over, and then let’s talk about how this omission has helped accelerate our present cultural evil, and what we can do about it.

The Trinity as Family

 First, let’s think of the Trinity. The Trinity is a Trinity of persons. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are real people. God is One Person, but God is also three persons. There are not three gods. There is one God. But this one God is three persons. If we believe there are not three actual persons, if we believe that God is one person but the other two members of the Trinity are just modes or extensions of the one Person, we embrace heresy. The Trinity consists of three actual people. These persons love each other. They commune with each other. They delight in each other.[4]

John chapter 17 records Jesus’ prayer to his Father for his disciples. We call it his high priestly prayer. He’s interceding for his followers — not just his present followers, but those who would one day follow him (v. 20). In other words, he was praying for us.

One thing he prays is most striking:

“… And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent…. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me….” (vv. 3, 20–23)

 

In eternity past, the Father loved the Son (and the Spirit). The Son is eternal, just as eternal as the Father. We call this the eternal generation of the Son.[5] He is constantly finding his life and sustenance in the Father (Jn. 5:36) without being one whit inferior to the Father. The Son wants to please the Father, as every good son wants to please every good father. And the Father relishes to exalt the Son, every good human father relishes to exalt his good human son. Every good father is proud of his good son, and the heavenly Father is proud of his good Son. We can only imagine the communion and delight and joy the Father, Son and Spirit enjoy with one another.

Jesus prays that this glory, this communion between Father and Son, will be extended to his followers, the chosen ones. Jesus prays that these disciples — and this includes us — may share in that intimate communion. We will all be one: Father, Son, Spirit, and disciples.

But I’d like to draw your attention to one more salient point. Jesus says this this knowledge, this communion, is eternal life (v. 3). It’s not a benefit of eternal life; it is eternal life. Eternal life is communion with the Father, Son and Spirit.

Later, John gives as the reason for writing his Gospel that his readers will have eternal life (Jn. 20:31). This is why Jesus came: to bring eternal life (Jn. 3:16).

This interpretation is supported by what Jesus says earlier in his ministry. The apostle John especially likes to record the great intimacy between the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Father. “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (Jn. 3:35). “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise’” (Jn. 5:19). “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). And perhaps the most tender of all, to Mary, at his tomb: “‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’’” (Jn. 20:30). Jesus felt so close to his disciples that he identified with them in their mutual relation to God. “He is my Father and your Father, my God and your God.”

Think about it: Jesus came to give us eternal life, and eternal life is communion with the eternal family love of the Father and the Son.

The Gospel is presented in the Bible from many perspectives, but How many times when we hear the Gospel preached do we hear, “Trust in Jesus Christ because he came to earth to restore the broken communion between you on the one hand and the loving Father and him as the loving Son on the other”? Not as many as we should, I’d venture. But that’s precisely why Jesus came. At root, the Gospel is a family fact — the loving father and his children. The Good News is family love. This isn’t the way that many conservative Protestants today would put it, but it is the way Jesus Christ put it.

The Bride and the Groom

Next, consider marriage. We know from Ephesians 5 that the communion between Jesus Christ and his church is a “profound mystery” (v. 32). The mystery is that this communion is analogous to marriage. This passage explodes with meaning, but I’ll point out just a couple of specially relevant truths.

While the wife is called to subordinate herself to her husband (not anybody else’s husband; this passage doesn’t teach that women in general must submit to men in general), the husband is called to cherish and “bosom” his wife.[6] He is called to meet her bodily needs and protect her and “coddle” her just as he does his own flesh. This is what Jesus does with us, his bride, his church.

Second, the husband’s supreme self-sacrifice is laying down his life for his wife. This is precisely what Jesus did for us as his church, and he’s the pattern for us husbands.

Now the Bible teaches that Jesus’ death on the Cross was a sacrifice for sin and sinners. The entire old covenant atonement system was sacrificial. It pointed to Jesus as the one final enduring sacrifice (Heb. 10:1–18). This death (along with the resurrection) is the heart of the new covenant Gospel (1 Cor. 15:1–4).

But it’s imperative to recognize that Paul isn’t teaching here that Jesus died just for separate individuals. This is why he speaks of the husband and wife. The bride is collectively the church. Jesus died for his people as an elect body. In our present individualistic culture, this distinction is important. Ours isn’t just a Jesus-and-me salvation. God makes his saving covenant with covenant people in the covenant blood-shedding of his Son.

Jesus is the groom and the church is the bride. Jesus coddles and nourishes and “bosoms” the church. He sacrifices himself in providing for the church, and he gives himself up in the ultimate sacrifice at death.

Think about this for a minute. It’s not just that he paid an abstract penalty for sin. He loves the church. He cherishes the church. He’s emotionally bound to the church. He wants to preserve the church so desperately that to save the church, he gives his own life. This husbandly sacrifice is at the heart of the Gospel. It’s not simply, “Jesus died on the Cross because he wanted to take us to heaven.” No. Jesus, the husband, poured out his life’s blood to rescue his wife. It was his self-sacrificial, husbandly love that made the Cross possible.

Now, think with me. This husbandly sacrifice is a Gospel truth. You don’t have a Gospel without the sacrifice, and you don’t have the sacrifice without the sacrifice of the groom for his bride. This means that marriage is near the heart of the Gospel.

The Children

Third, in John chapter 1 we read:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (1:12–13)

God sent Jesus into the world to get more children. We often don’t think of the Gospel in these terms, but this is one chief way to understand the Gospel, and we cannot understand it as we should if we lose this element. God is a Father. He has an eternal Son. He wants more than an eternal Son. He wants lots of children.

Of course, we are humans, made in God’s image, and we are not God and never can be. You or I cannot be a child of God in the same way that Jesus is child of God, but we can be a child of God, and we are children of God in the way that only humans can be. This in fact is what it means to be a child of God. That is precisely what the Bible calls us. The Gospel is God’s family-growth plan.

Earlier I mentioned being “born again,” or born from above, as we read in John chapter 3. God the Father employs his Holy Spirit to supernaturally birth us into his family. As John chapter 1 just said, we are not born of our own will, but our Father’s. It was not our idea to be born into a physical world, and it’s not our idea to be born into the spiritual world. That is the parent’s choice, not the child’s. Parents want to bring children into a world so that they will love and be loved, delighted and be delighted. Well, this is why our heavenly Father brings to us into his world: to love and be loved and delight him and so that we can delight in his world and his ways.

This is how we become a part of God’s family. We have our heavenly Father. We have a mother, the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26). We have brothers and sisters. A good family delight in each other. The parents nourish and rear the children and protect them and provide for them. The children look to and rely on and honor and obey the parents. The children enjoy each other’s company and plan time together and help each other in hard times. This is precisely what the Bible teaches about us as the children of God; and our family, the church, and the epistle of 1 John has a lot to say about it.

The Gospel, I repeat, is God’s family-growth plan. He has his eternal Son that he has always loved, and the Father desires more children, and the Son desires more brothers and sisters. They refuse to keep all of their family love and joy and delight to themselves. That’s why we read in Hebrews 2 that God “brought many sons to glory” by the suffering of Jesus Christ (v. 10). “For he who sanctifies [Jesus] and those who are sanctified [Christians, his brothers and sisters] all have one source [they have the same Father]. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (v. 11). Jesus is our older brother. We share the same Father.

The Gospel isn’t simply good news. It is good family news. The good news is family love.

To review: the Gospel means that we join the eternal communion of the loving Father and his Son by the power of his Spirit.

The Gospel means that Jesus is the church’s husband and sacrifices and bosoms us and lays down his life for us to rescue us.

The Gospel means that the heavenly Father wants more children than just Jesus, and therefore the Gospel is God’s family growth plan, and we’re a part of that family.

The Implications

Let me explore some poignant implications of these truths as they pertain to the church in the West in the early 21st century.

Creation truths

First, note that while each of these three facts is a Gospel truth, each is also rooted in creation. The heavenly Father and his eternal Son wanted to extend their communion, so they created humans, made in God’s image. Marriage is a creation ordinance, and it was around before the Fall. Jesus was the eternal Son of God, and did not simply become the son of God, but God created Adam as his human son (Lk. 3:38).

All of these predated the Fall. They are creation truths.

Now, the Fall introduced great changes into God’s good creation, but it did not destroy the creation. The Fall effaced creation; it did not erase it. The Gospel is the good news adapted to the fallen world, but the Gospel operates within the created world. In fact, the Gospel isn’t just about redemption; it’s about restoring and enhancing creation. That’s just what redemption does.

Too often, however, in stressing redemption, we’re too quick to get to the Cross. [7] This might sound heretical, but it’s not. The Cross is there to redeem something, and that something is God’s good creation. Redemption always occurs against the background of creation. And that is why the family is a pattern for the Gospel, and in fact, if there’s no family, there’s no Gospel. If there’s no eternal Father and Son, there’s no Gospel. If there’s no husband-and-wife union, there is no Gospel. If they’re no children of God (no Adam as the son of God), there’s no Gospel.

The de-familialized Gospel

Second, the Gospel Protestants have preached over the last century or so has been a truncated Gospel,[8] and one glaring aspect of that truncation is its lack of Biblical family orientation. Tragically, this omission was happening at the same time that our secular culture was assaulting the very foundations of the family: legalized abortion; recreational birth control; unwed teen pregnancy; pornography; easy, no-fault divorce; homosexuality, same-sex “marriage”; machismo; radical feminism; surrogate pregnancy; egg harvesting; artificial insemination; sperm donation. But the 20th century Gospel was all about individual salvation and forgiveness of sins and being right before God and “I’m going to heaven when I die.” The familial aspects of the Gospel were omitted or simply placed in another category, to be dealt with later, in sanctification or Christian growth. The important Gospel truth was the benefit and future of the individual.

Think about it. The church was preaching a radically individualized Gospel that neglected the family at the same time that the culture was preaching a radically individualized counter-Gospel that undercut the family. In other words, our Gospel didn’t challenge the secular culture at its very heart. For this truncated Gospel, we’re now paying a heavy cultural price.

The Gospel isn’t just a message; it’s a worldview. As David Wells wrote, the “Gospel makes sense only in a moral world.”[9] Part of that moral world is the family of God’s creation. You cannot preach the Gospel without preaching the family, and the church’s anorexic Gospel is no match for Satan’s robust counter-Gospel. If we’d been preaching family as Gospel all along, we could have confronted the secular anti-family counter-Gospel as the very point of attack.

Gospel preaching = family preaching

Third, we can’t preach the Gospel without preaching the family. About the time of the Obergefell decision, some allegedly conservative Protestant churches and organizations changed their position about homosexuality and same-sex “marriage.” One reason they gave was that if they oppose same-sex “marriage,” they would “not necessarily [be following] the way of the Gospel.”[10] There’s unity in the Gospel, and the same-sex “marriage” dispute sunders this unity. They didn’t want to be distracted from their real calling, which is to preach the Gospel.

The problem is that there is no Gospel without the family. Think of it this way. We can’t understand why Jesus Christ died for the church until we understand that the church is the bride. The church bears distinctive feminine characteristics, and her Lord bears distinctive masculine characteristics. The church is the weaker vessel (1 Pet. 3:7). The church bears the Father’s children (Gal. 4:26). The church is utterly reliant on her Lord (Eph. 5:23c). But if both spouses are male, we have utterly lost this Gospel truth. The sacrifice of the husband for the wife is possible only if the husband is male and the wife is female. This is what the Bible means by sacrificial atonement, and it is simply not compatible with same-sex “marriage.”

Think about a lesbian couple with children. The Bible teaches that God is our Father. The right kind of fathers live and act like fathers. They act in ways that only fathers can act and mothers cannot and should not act; but if we have no father, only two mothers, we cannot understand what the fatherhood in the Gospel means. This doesn’t mean that a child without a father in the home cannot know the Gospel. But it does mean that the Gospel must be modeled to him by other fathers nearby. The specific, intentional exclusion of fatherhood in a lesbian marriage, however, doesn’t just destroy the biblical pattern of creation; it destroys the Gospel.

Let us think yet again about children. They are the product of a loving, physical intercourse, if marriage is done in God’s way. But a child born of a surrogate pregnancy (a rented womb) knows nothing about that loving intimacy at its source. A child born of anonymous sperm joined to an anonymous egg might be loved, but that child was not brought into the world as the result of a loving sexual act. We children of God are spiritually birthed by the loving act of regeneration by a heavenly Father. We were not spiritually manufactured by an abstract God acting abstractly. If we lose the loving, personal aspect of this rebirth, we have simply lost the Gospel.

In short: You cannot get the family wrong and get the Gospel right. This is why it will never suffice to say you’re going to set aside family issues and just preach the Gospel. If you set aside family issues, you cannot preach the Gospel.

“Just preach the Gospel”

Fourth, and, finally, our job as churches in counteracting the virulent, counter-family forces in our culture is to: preach the Gospel. But I don’t mean the family-erased Gospel of the 20th century. I mean the Gospel that invite sinners to join the communion of the eternal family, the heavenly Father and his Son and the Spirit. I mean the Gospel of the husband Jesus who sacrifices himself even to death for his bride, the church, and to which we are called in salvation. I mean the Gospel that births us into an entirely new family, with a loving, caring Father, with the God-Man Jesus as our older brother, and with loving and caring brothers and sisters.

Understand that these are not simply implications of a higher and more basic Gospel. These are the Gospel. And if we have neglected them, we have neglected critical aspects of the Gospel. Union with Jesus Christ is union into the fellowship of an eternal Father and Son. The death of Jesus Christ is the husband’s death for his bride. Rebirth is birth into the Christian family. This is Gospel.

In conclusion: in preaching and encouraging and protecting and nourishing the family in our churches, we are preaching and encouraging and protecting and nourishing the Gospel.

We hear a lot of talk about Gospel-driven churches and Gospel-driven living. This Gospel drivenness is an imperative, and this means that we must be family-driven churches who practice family-driven living. This has nothing whatsoever to do with “patriarchy” or “family-integrated churches.”[11] The church isn’t a collection of families. It’s the eternal heavenly family that is the paradigm for the earthly family, not vice versa. If we lose that family, as well as the creation family, we lose the Gospel. And if we do stress the family as we should, we have been faithful Gospel people. The family in its very DNA models the Gospel.

I know of a Christian couple with two small children. The husband’s parents are both Christians, but the wife’s divorced parents are not. I’ve known them for years. The unbelieving parents aren’t actively hostile to the Gospel, but they have had no interest in it. Yes as they see their children, and especially their grandchildren, I am noticing a subtle shift. Their hearts are softening, and I believe I know why. Because the family is Gospel truth, softening toward the family is a softening toward the Gospel, Just as a hardening toward the family is a hardening toward the Gospel. Peter tells us that an unbelieving husband is won over not by a wife’s Gospel preaching, but by her faithful, obedient life (1 Pet. 3:1–2). In the same way, unbelievers can be won over by the loving, caring family, which models the loving, caring family set forth in the Gospel.

If we want a successful Gospel church, we must be a successful family church. If we want a successful Gospel culture, we must be a successful family culture.

Family is Gospel.


 

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, “Theologia Reformata et Semper Reformanda,” Toward the Future of Reformed Theology, David Willis and Michael Welker, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 120.
[2] Carl Trueman is correct that Luther was so committed to (his view of) justification that he “used [it] . . . to remake soteriology,” in “Simul peccator et justis: Martin Luther and Justification,” Justification in Perspective, Bruce L. McCormack, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 73.
[3] Mary Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2013).
[4] Michael Reeves, The Good God (Milton Keynes, England: Paternoster, 2012).
[5] John M. Frame, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2013), 490–496.
[6] Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010, 2011), Kindle edition, commentary at 4:1–6:20.
[7] Gordon Spykman, “Fundamentalism in the CRC: A Critique,” Pro Rege, September, 1986, 16.
[8] On this entire theme, see Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
[9] David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 138.
[10] “A Letter from the Elder Board,” https://www.citychurchsf.org/A-Letter-From-The-Elder-Board, accessed December 5, 2015.
[11] P. Andrew Sandlin, “The ‘Patriarchy’ Problem,” https://docsandlin.com/2012/04/17/the-patriarchy-problem-2/, accessed October 9, 2015.