The Three-Dimensional Gospel

Jonathan Dodson, author of Fight Clubs and pastor of Austin City Life, recently posted a little video excerpt talking about the three-dimensional nature of the gospel, in that it is theological, personal, and social.  What Dodson does below is offer a theological explanation of the biblical gospel (not a biblical explanation of a theological gospel).  Here’s the 3-minute clip:

I have corresponded with Jonathan about this video and have asked if he would be willing to discuss any of these dimensions in the comments, to which he graciously agreed.  As some of you know, currently there is debate among some as to how “big” the gospel is, while others have questioned the difference between the nature of the gospel and the implications of the gospel.  In any case, take a moment to share your thoughts on this important topic.

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26 Comments on “The Three-Dimensional Gospel”

  1. Jonathon has done a wonderful job summarizing the all-encompassing nature of the gospel. This is certainly a much needed clarification of the effects of the gospel in the life of the church. I am interested to hear more of Dodson’s thoughts.

  2. carlton Says:

    Interesting. I have some thoughts on this but I am going to chew on it for a while.

  3. Jason Kovacs Says:

    My big question on this issue is whether the Bible gives us enough warrant for us to use the word “gospel” to describe social justice. Does the use of “gospel” in the Scripture describe a way of life in this world or does it describe primarily what Christ has done and how we can be saved?

  4. This is a great summation of how the gospel should work in us and through us. Unfortunately, many stop at the work of the gospel on the mind; forgetting about how it reaches the person in totality. Then, because of this self-centered approach, we neglect the importance of how the gospel is to be channeled through us to effect the community where we live.

  5. carlton Says:

    In thinking about this clip, I have watched it multiple times, I am a little concerned about something. It may simply be my inadequacy in terminology and be no big deal.

    Is it not true that the 1st dimension is causative of the 2nd and likewise the 2nd dimension is causative of the 3rd? It sounds from the clip like he is saying that the Personal dimension and the Cultural/Social dimension are the good news? Did I get that wrong?

    If that is true, can 2 and 3 really be considered dimensions? Do they carry the same weight as the first dimension? Are dimensions 2 and 3 actually the Good News or are they results/fruits of the good news?

    I think we have to be careful here in defining the gospel. There is a difference between the Gospel and it’s abiding affects. An apple isn’t an apple tree. One is causative of the other but they are not the same.

    I hope I didn’t misunderstand this dear brother. If I did, please correct me.

    In Him

  6. Andy Says:

    Some of you have said similar things to my thoughts.

    I believe we need to be careful not confuse the gospel message and implications of the gospel. Implications are important and need to be worked out, but they are not the gospel themselves. I’d be interested to get Jonathan’s perspective on this.

  7. Reid Says:

    Jason, Mark’s “gospel” begins with a resounding statement “the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” – the book then goes on to demonstrated this Kingdom reality that came with Jesus by showing us his dominion over sin, over the natural realm, over disease, over demons. The Kingdom coming is a comprehensive renewal of all things, including things in nature and in human society. So as the good news of the Kingdom transforms people, there is a transformation of all things now (though impartial and always incomplete) that will be fully realized when the good news is fully actualized at the coming of Jesus and the final state of his Kingdom.

    So yes, it is good news that healing, justice, compassion are offered “in Jesus” – the problem is with liberal and emergent type theology is that Jesus the King can be absent from the “Kingdom” which then becomes simply social issues.

    Jesus saves sinners from sin, death and hell – the individual dimension. He always saves us into the covenant family, the church. He always sends his church on the mission to preach the saving good news (1 Cor 15 – theological dimension) to human beings (personal dimension) who then live differently in this age now as an inbreaking of the rule and reign of Jesus (3rd dimension)

    Minimizing the individual, sinner saving atonement is a biblical distortion that is no gospel at all. Yet to truncate on the other end is abortive of God’s purposes through the church.

    I do think the first dimensions birth the following as Christ must first save us becoming our covenant King – then we get about his mission which is seeing others convert, commune and be about the work of redemption now as we await his final work in the eschaton.

    Just some thoughts – thanks Timmy and Jonathan.

  8. logsatm04 Says:

    My question is what would be the ramifications of divorcing the implications of the gospel with what you’re terming “the gospel”? If we don’t join the implications or effects of the gospel, then how do process the current activity or nature of the gospel?

    I understand wanting to preach the gospel simply as it is stated in scripture, but without implications it cannot be good news.

    The three-dimensional gospel is the overwhelming theme of the new testament. For Jesus to discuss the judgment in Matthew 25 is to join eternal life with participating in the restoration of the poor. Without the social justice piece of the gospel, it is a poor misunderstanding of the gospel and seems to indicate no salvation.

    In 1 John, it’s clear that personal life transformation results in the gospel changing someone. To divorce that implication is to make a knowledge-driven gospel without personal power. It seems like a weak gospel without these 2 aspects.

    This is extremely helpful in directing missional communities to participate in the fullness of the gospel.

  9. Hey Guys, thanks for interacting. I apologize for not weighing in earlier; it’s been an incredibly busy day. A few thoughts:

    1) DIMENSIONS OR IMPLICATIONS?: Carlton, Jason, and Andy raise a very good point about viewing the Gospel in 3 dimensions, namely am I saying that the social and cultural dimensions are “implications” or a part of the gospel itself? Although I have not finished a paper I am working on to address this very point, and therefore have not completely settled my view, I lean towards social and cultural aspects of the gospel being “dimensions” not “implications.” The choice of vocabulary is deliberate. I am asserting that the Gospel has three dimensions and to take away one dimensions is to distort the actual gospel, to reduce it to 1 or 2 dimensional gospel.

    2) DOCTRINES THAT SUPPORT 3 DIMENSIONS: Now, I realize that, for some, this may be considered dangerous; however, I believe that the various gospel doctrines of the Bible push us in the dimensional direction. It seems wise to keep all three sides, or dimensions, of the whole gospel together, both theologically and practically. However, to Carlton’s point, there is a primary dimension–the historical-theological gospel. Apart from a historic, kerygmatic gospel, as explained in 1 Cor 15:1-4 (first importance of Jesus death and resurrection), there can be no genuine, lasting personal, social, or cultural change. To state it another way, I like to think of the Gospel producing “Three Conversions” (which I explain briefly in my Fight Club booklet)—a conversion to Christ, to the Church, and to Mission. However, our primary conversion is to Jesus, which results in conversion to the Church and Mission…But it is the full 3D Gospel that converts us to a full Jesus who is LORD, not merely of the historic, spiritual gospel, but also LORD over the person, society, and culture. Conversion to Jesus is primary but that conversion does not stand alone. The gospel converts us to all three because it is a three dimensional gospel.

    Tim Keller explains this phenomenon in terms of the “Perspectives of the Gospel” in his article The Gospel: The Key to Change. Either there or elsewhere he makes the point that the various gospel doctrines emphasize one of the “perspectives” (what I am calling dimensions, not Keller’s vocab) of teh Gospel. We have different gospel doctrines in order to bring out all three dimensions of the gospel. For instance:

    1) Historic/Doctrinal = Justification,
    2) Personal/Communal = Adoption, Regeneration, Atonement
    3) Social/Cultural = New Creation (your particular emphasis), Kingdom of God

    It is interesting to note that some of the doctrines reflect all three dimensions of the Gospel, i.e. Regeneration, Atonement, etc. Titus emphasizes Regneration as personal and Jesus emphases it as cosmic renewal. Paul uses atonement as personal, historic, and social (Christus Victor, Col 1:20). So, doctrinally a case can be made for there being a three dimensional gospel.

    Perhaps in a follow up comment or Post I can try to make a biblical case for the 3D. I believe this where this theological explanation of the Gospel will stand or fall, and i want to stand where the Bible stands, not where theological formulations conveniently line up with my reflections!

    Thanks for the sharpening!

  10. Before logging a post or comment on the biblical support for the 3D Gospel, I thought I would raise another theological point. If the Gospel is essentially Jesus is LORD (read=Christological monotheism), doesn’t it require a 3D Gospel? If Jesus is LORD, inscribed within the identity of YHWH/Kurios, then isn’t his lordship over all the earth—personal, historical, and social? The biblical Christology seems to hold together waht the modern worldview wants to push apart. The philosophical distinction between gospel and implication seems to undermine monotheistic christology, making Jesus merely “savior” of the spirit. But Jesus is Lord over creation, which includes history, personal change, and social change. He is no tribal deity restricted to the domain of the spiritual and immaterial. Rather, he is both agent and regent of creation, affecting everything with his life, death, and resurrection.

  11. carlton Says:

    I don’t understand how you define the Gospel primarily as, “Jesus is Lord.” Brother, Jesus was Lord before the world began. He was Lord before he died on the cross and rose again for our salvation.

    The Gospel isn’t simply, “Jesus is Lord.” The Gospel is that the Lord of all the Earth, Jesus, died a substitute and was raised again for our redemption.

    The 2nd and 3rd dimensions in my opinion are not separate conversions but rather effects/implications/fruits of the original conversion.

    I wonder if the importance and emphasis that is being applied to personal/communal and social/cultural situations comes from the deficiency that we see in our own local churches in these areas. No doubt we are in a culture in which the evangelical church as a whole is at best anemic.

    However, could it be that the reason why the 2nd and 3rd dimensions that you speak of are not present in most of our churches because of a lack of the primacy and necessity of the 1st dimension in salvation?

    If this is the case, and many would agree it is, then this is not a problem of reduction of multiple dimensions. It is a problem of a reduction of the 1st and primary dimension. You yourself admit that,
    “there is a primary dimension–the historical-theological gospel. Apart from a historic, kerygmatic gospel, as explained in 1 Cor 15:1-4 (first importance of Jesus death and resurrection), there can be no genuine, lasting personal, social, or cultural change.”

    I still believe it is dangerous to equate the personal, social and cultural changes that are produced from the 1st dimension you speak of as being in and of themselves the gospel.

    Brother, you are tremendously more eloquent, educated and experienced than I am so please know I write this in all humility.

    In Him,

  12. Thanks, Carlton.

    JESUS IS LORD: D.A. Carson shortens the gospel even further, to just “Jesus” (see Keller, “Gospel-centered Ministry”), so Jesus is Lord should stand a chance on being the Gospel. 🙂 While I agree that Jesus, in a sense, has always been lord, the Scriptures tie his ascent to lordship with his victory over sin, death, and evil through his death and resurrection (Col 1:18; Phil 2:9-11). The Colossian and Philippian hymns contain some of the highest Christology in the NT, and their logic leads us to see Jesus as Lord penultimately in his agency in creation BUT ultimately because he defeated of sin, death, and the powers in his death and resurrection. For the early church, “Jesus is Lord” or “Christ Jesus is Lord” was shorthand for the Gospel.

    THE GOSPEL OF JESUS AND ISAIAH: For a biblical reading of the 3D Gospel, consider Isa 61/Luk 4 where Jesus makes his first announcement of the Gospel by quoting from Isaiah 61. Jesus specifically states this is the “good news” evangelion, which is also present in the LXX/Septuagint in Isa 61. What is this good news gospel?

    In fulfillment of Isaiah 61, Jesus announces that he has come to: 1) Preach the gospel to the poor 2) release to the captives 3) recovery of sight to the blind, and 4) set free the oppressed in Luke 4:18-19. This announcement signals the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom ministry as the good news breaks in on the world through him. The good news that he preaches is the breaking in of his messianic, redemptive reign which is doctrinal, personal, and social.

    1. Doctrinal: This is a kingdom, Christ-centered message associated with historical message of Jesus. Jesus came to save us from judgment and give us salvation.
    2. Personal: This message was good news because it liberates spiritual captives, resonating with the spiritual exile of Jews in the land. Restores the broken-hearted. Releasing us from heaviness to wear a garment of praise.
    3. Social: This message resulted in renewal of social and physical dimensions of creation, recovery of sight for the blind. Rescuing the oppressed. As the context reveals, this good news was good for entire cities. It inaugurates the favorable year of the Lord repairing cities, and renewing vineyards

    Whether or not we agree on the “dimensional language” we should all labor to remain faithful to the Gospel AND its “implications.” I see this happening better when we understand the gospel as 3D, as Jesus is Lord, and not reducing him to a spiritualized savior who merely rescues souls, which in turn, strangely obey him in very social, cultural, and physical ways. If the Gospel is just “Jesus”, we must still keep his humanity and divinity together. The incarnation reminds us that the Gospel is always physical and “spiritual”.

    Perhaps we agree to disagree. Regardless, eloquence and education get me nowhere without the Gospel. Persuasive wisdom is nothing apart from the demonstration of the Spirit. May God give us both his Spirit, along with clear, faithful understanding and teaching of His Word.

    Warmly yours,


  13. […] 2, 2009 in Uncategorized | Tags: Gospel-centered, the gospel Timmy Brister pulled me into his blog in an attempt to refine the Gospel-centered language a little […]

  14. Reid Says:

    JD, critical to #2 is that the good news includes a covenantal dimension in that we are no longer strangers and aliens to God but citizens in his household. This is clear from Eph 1-2.

    Also, the very interesting text in Galatians 3:8 – And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

    In this text we see a folding of 1 and 2 together with gentile justification being the outworking of God’s covenant promise to Abraham.

    Great discussion. Guys, Jonathan is not wanting to leave behind atonement for sinners to move to community and culture…though many do this. Nor should we truncate the scope of the gospel for fear that some leave sound individual atonement theology.

    Not that I agree with him, but for those wanting a good discussion/warning to keep the “gospel” smaller, Mark Dever’s excellent talk at T4G in 2008. Summary here –

    Audio here –

  15. Agreed, Reid! Thanks for clarifying my commitment to the atonement.

  16. Jonathan D.,

    Thanks so much for your interaction here. I’d love to interact with your thoughts more, but at the present moment I’m still with our leadership team at our retreat. I do look forward to discussing this further, whether it is in the comments on through a new post. We need more conversations like this to take place!

  17. Andy Says:

    One other question for Jonathan.

    Is your use of the word ‘social’ intentional? For many the term ‘social gospel’ cares a lot of baggage. Using a term like ‘cultural’ may avoid some of that. But it also comes with its own problems. Just wondering.

  18. I don’t intend to conjure up the “social gospel” of the liberal modernist controversy, but I do intend an expression of the gospel that addresses social issues, culture, and creation. Yes, social is too limiting. Missional would be better.

  19. carlton Says:

    I thank you for your candor in this discussion. If you would clarify a few points for me so I can better understand your view I would be grateful.

    -In talking about the 2nd and 3rd dimensions are you suggesting that the Gospel is actually bigger/more extensive than a means for conversion?

    -If the 2nd and 3rd dimensions are in fact dimensions and not implications are they essential for initial conversion?

    -Does a persons salvation depend upon the presence of the 2nd and 3rd dimensions being present in their lives?

    Thank you,

  20. Reid Says:

    Jonathan, “missional” is very dependent on what the “mission” is…so I’m not sure the word helps in this setting. Holistic all of life encompassing is too many words so I’m not sure…cultural seems good perhaps.

    Carlton, I’ll let Jonathan address your questions to him but for one moment consider that “good news” brought by God in and through Jesus Christ could span beyond conversion. Jesus coming, 1st and 2nd, are good news in more ways that an individual going to heaven.

    Why else would “creation” be longing for the revelation of the sons of God (Rom 8)?

    * It IS good news that God will put the whole world under the headship of Jesus.
    * It IS good news that all the fracture of the fall will be removed through the acts of God
    * It IS good news that a new Kingdom reality came with Jesus in his first coming and continues in and through the church today

    Your questions for Jonathan are coming from a certain point of view that I think Jonathan and others are trying to address without abandoning the clear reality that God saves sinners through faith in Jesus Christ, our union with him and his completed work. I’ll look forward to his specific response along with you.

    Blessings guys

  21. carlton Says:

    Bro. Jonathan,

    Thank you for your insight. I agree that all the things you mentioned are in fact good news, glorious news even. This morning I went to my mail box and in God’s providence a sister church had sent me a check for $100.00 dollars because they felt led to do so. This is good news as well!

    But I can’t let the weight of a person’s eternal soul rest on telling them about any benefit they might receive by becoming a part of the Kingdom of God. However, I can entrust it to the Gospel, which is the message of Jesus death, burial and resurrection for the remission of sins.

    If what you are claiming is true, that these other dimension are in fact the gospel and not merely implications/fruits of the gospel, then we should be able to share them with sinners and trust that they have the power of God unto salvation by themselves. Can you rest well with a persons eternal soul in the balance after telling them that Jesus is coming to set up his kingdom in the future to rule over all heaven and earth and then simply leave it at that?

    I can’t, I’d have to go farther and tell them how they could become part of that kingdom by repenting of their sins and believing in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection as he was a propitiation for their sins. I have a feeling you couldn’t rest well either. The reason is because it the latter part that is the message which contains the power to convert the soul. Without the message of Christ’s atoning death, the other means nothing to a sinner.

    I believe that the things you mentioned in your former comment are all benefits of conversion. All of these things are contingent upon dimension 1 and can be categorized into dimension 2 or 3.

    I am very adamant about being narrow as to what the “Gospel” is. If we start to couple the benefits of the Gospel, which in fact are good news themselves and benefits of being in Christ, with the Gospel then we stand in danger of distorting that which God has ordained as the power of God unto salvation.

    I will agree that the gospel brings conversion and through conversion we have access to all the benefits that being in Christ affords. However, I don’t think that I can couple those benefits to the Gospel.


    • Carlton: you’ve misunderstood. I am not saying they are the Gospel, but that they are part of the Gospel. Please read chapter three of my Fight Clubs book. Thanks

      • carlton Says:

        You are right. I have misunderstood. I am not trying to be argumentative but you specifically said that, “I lean towards social and cultural aspects of the gospel being “dimensions” not “implications.” The choice of vocabulary is deliberate.

        If the choice of vocabulary is deliberate then would you not hold to the fact that all of the blessings in Christ, whether personal/missional/social, are equal?

        I think I understand where you are coming from. Namely, that the life affected by Gospel encompasses more than simply being saved and getting yourself a ticket to heaven and I agree wholeheartedly.

        However, I am being cautious because it is simple nuances that can eventually lead us down dangerous roads. I had several brothers listen to your video without any prompting. They all came away with the same idea, that you were saying that the 2nd and 3rd dimension were as essential to salvation as the 1st.

        Brother, you may not mean that at all. However, because of the vocabulary you have intentionally chosen, it can be taken that way. This is why I am adamant about being precise and delineating what is the Gospel and what is an effect of the Gospel.

        Again as always, thank you for your conversation and helping to sharpen me. I don’t have your book but I’d like to read it in the near future.

        For His Glory,

  22. […] Watch Jonathan Dodson speak about the “Three Dimensional Gospel.” […]

  23. Thanks, Carlton.

    Are all 3 dimensions equal? Good question. Equal in what sense? I think they are all equally important, all equally part of teh gospel, but not equal in priority. Without the historic gospel, there is not personal or social gospel. Priority must be given to Jesus historic death and resurrection.

    I encourage you and your friends to read Keller’s articles on this: Key to Change and The Gospel and its Many Forms. I’m not saying much new. The way I explain it is very close to the way Keller explains the gospel, except he uses the word “perspectives” instead of “dimensions.” I’d encourage you to read his articles on this topic. I’ll quote directly:

    All of the above are important ‘perspectives’ on the gospel. The first stresses the doctrinal content
    of the gospel. The gospel is the news that Jesus Christ died and rose for our salvation in history.
    The second stresses the personal individual impact of the gospel. The gospel is a transforming
    grace that changes our hearts and inmost motives. The third stresses the social impact of the
    gospel. The gospel brings a new ‘order’ in which believers no longer are controlled by material
    goods or worldly status and have solidarity with others across customary social barriers. These
    three ‘perspectives’ are all Biblical and should be kept together. There is a tendency for
    Christians and churches to focus on just one of these perspectives and ignore the others.
    However they are inseperable and inter-dependent on one another.

    I don’t think we will get much further on this discussion on a blog, so this will be my last comment. Every blessing to you, brother.

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