Ascension: The Present-Tense of the Gospel

What Pliny required of Christians who would renounce their faith is no different from what the Apostle Paul says is required for Christians who would be saved by their faith. 

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord…you will be saved” (10.9-10). The word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means “a public declaration of fealty.” In other words, what Paul says will save you for God is the equal and opposite expression of what Pliny said would save you from Caesar and his wrath.  

Again, notice Paul doesn’t say “If you confess that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to David (or Abraham), then you will be saved.” Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God incarnate then you will be saved; nor does Paul say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins. When it comes to salvation and the necessary confession of faith for it, Paul focuses squarely on one specific stage of the Gospel: the Lordship of Jesus. 

Why?

Why does Paul fix our participation in God’s salvation to the confession of Jesus as Lord? Why not confess that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself; believe and be saved? Why not while we were yet sinners…put your faith in what he’s done for you and you will be saved?

Why does Paul say that in order to be saved we must confess Jesus not as Savior or Substitute or Sacrifice, not as Son of Man or Son of God, but as Lord?

Because, for Paul, the incarnation, the crucifixion, resurrection and reconciliation- those are all past perfect events. 

The present Lordship of Christ is the stage of the Gospel we now occupy. 

What Paul summarizes as the Gospel in Romans 1 he spells out in 1 Corinthians 15. The Gospel he receieved which he in turn handed to the Church in Corinth has 8 parts to it or stages. 

Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus:

preexisted with the Father
took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promise to David
died for sins in accordance with the scriptures
was buried
was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
appeared to many
is seated at the right hand of God as Lord
and will come again as judge. 

Note the shift, both here in Paul’s Gospel and in the Apostles Creed, from the past tense to the present tense.

Paul says that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus is Lord because that’s where we are all at in the story. 

It’s a non-negotiable part of the Gospel. Jesus is Lord right now, currently in residence as Lord and King to whom God has given dominion over heaven and earth.

To accept that present-tense point in the Gospel is to acknowledge the other parts of the Gospel that preceded it; likewise, to deny Jesus’ Lordship is to devalue the Gospel that precedes it. The enthronement of the crucified and risen Jesus to the right hand of God to be Lord isn’t ancillary to Paul’s Gospel but is the climax of it. The cross and resurrection aren’t ends in themselves; they are the means by which God establishes Jesus as the Earth’s true and rightful Lord. As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch now in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ who is Sovereign over all, does not cry “Mine!””

When we deemphasize the Ascension of Jesus, we immediately neuter the Gospel of the only present-tense element to it.

All that remains is the Gospel’s past and the future tenses. We demote Jesus from Lord of the cosmos to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs, which produces a false distinction between Jesus as a personal lord and Jesus as Lord of the Cosmos. 

Salvation then becomes the promise of a future reality we access by agreeing to propositions about what Jesus did in the past rather than salvation being a present reality into which we’re incorporated by baptism and in which we participate already as subjects of the Lord who reigns now. 

If this sounds like a picayune grammatical distinction, then consider the qualitative difference for discipleship:

  “Jesus taught 2,000 years that we should love our enemies.” 

Versus:

“The one who taught us to love our enemies 2,000 years ago is, this very moment, Lord of heaven and earth.”

Without the Ascension of Jesus, the Sermon on Mount can remain safely in the past, leaving us free to argue with it or agreed to it. If the Preacher on the Mount is right now Lord, suddenly his sermon becomes less about assent and more a matter of obedience. 

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Jason Micheli
Since 2002, Jason has served as a pastor of churches in New Jersey and Virginia, as well as a prison and hospital chaplain. He's been Executive Pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia for coming on 13 years. Jason studied theology at the University of Virginia and Princeton. He is an ordained elder in the UMC.