Let me now call attention to how the gospel looked in the early church. One of the best places to do this is with Philip in Acts 8:12: “But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike” (NASB). Now, wait a moment. Here is something new. Philip was preaching the good news about “the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus.” What’s that? The gospel is about the name of Jesus? Actually, when you begin to study this in the New Testament, you find that there are a lot of different ways of putting the gospel. Here we see the relationship of the disciple to Christ and His kingdom through “the name of Jesus.” The very name of Jesus is “good news.” One finds the kingdom of God by acting with the name of Jesus (see John 14:13–14).
Now, think about this: If you have a Christ without a kingdom, you don’t have a Christ. And if you have a kingdom without Christ, you don’t have a kingdom of God. You have to keep those two together. How they came together for Jesus’ early disciples and their disciples is made plain by the book of Acts. Jesus put a face on the kingdom of God. But the phrase “the kingdom of God” went wild in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I don’t just mean in a theological context but in the political as well. The great threat, especially among the more liberal-leaning branches of the church and of Western society, is to forget about Jesus. Then you will have a kingdom of man parading itself as the kingdom of God. But we can’t really forget about Him. He won’t go off the page. Consider John 12:32: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (NASB). You can’t get rid of that. Pull that out and history disappears. Jesus and His teachings are the focus of the Western world. We are in a tragic experiment with regard to Jesus in our culture in America today. We’re trying to put something in the place of Jesus: the empty shell we call secularism.
Still, here is the gospel: the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus. What is the name of Jesus? It is access to the kingdom of God. Jesus taught His disciples how to act in His name. It is in His name that we overcome the darkness and its prince.
SPIRITUAL FORMATION FOR DISCIPLES OF JESUS
If we were to move carefully through the book of Acts, we would see that the kingdom of God stays right there, from beginning all the way to the end. It shows up in wonderful passages, like Paul’s parting from the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. And when we come to the end of Acts, we have “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered” (Acts 28:31, NASB). That’s the last verse of the book of Acts. This passage is about Paul in Rome, and, symbolically at least, this is the fulfillment of Matthew 21:43 where “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it” (NASB).
In the light of all this, what is spiritual formation? Spiritual formation is the training process that occurs for those who are disciples of Jesus. Spiritual formation and discipleship are all about development of the life in the kingdom of God that comes to us through the risen Christ. As a disciple of Jesus, I am living with Him, learning to live in the kingdom of God as He lived in the kingdom of God. Spiritual formation is taking the explicit statements of Jesus and learning how to live this way. Jesus did tell us, did He not, that we should make disciples, submerging them in Trinitarian reality? Baptizing them in the Trinitarian name doesn’t just mean saying the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” over them while you get them wet. The name in biblical understanding is reality, and to baptize them is to submerge them in the Trinitarian reality. We must understand the relevance of the Trinity to the gospel! The gospel is about life with the Trinity.
Dallas Willard, “The Gospel of the Kingdom and Spiritual Formation,” in The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation, ed. Alan Andrews (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2010), 54–56.
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