Monday, April 12, 2010

The Gospel

The Gospel, The Whole Gospel, and Nothin’ But The Gospel

I. The Centrality of the Gospel

The events of Easter weekend are often encapsulated in the phrase ‘The Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ This is perfectly appropriate, and today I want to investigate what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, and how we are to understand and live by it.

At the outset, I want to quote the warning from the Apostle Paul in Galatians 1:6-9.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I saw again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

A church must be founded upon the Gospel: we are not to add to or take away from the Gospel. Embracing, teaching, or preaching a different (expanded or reduced or alternative) gospel is in effect rejecting the gospel.

II. The Center of the Gospel – Jesus Christ

But what is the Gospel? The historical events of Easter week generally focus our attention upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And certainly this is central to the gospel. Throughout 1 Corinthians, for example, the apostle Paul focuses upon Christ crucified and risen.

1:22-24 – “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

2:1-2 – “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Lest we think Paul focused only on the crucifixion of Christ, he corrects us in 15:3-8 – “For what I received [the gospel tradition he received from the other apostles] I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. …”

The Gospel preached by Paul centered upon the atoning death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But the New Testament concept of the Gospel is broader, incorporates more, than only these pivotal historical events.

The Greek word translated as ‘Gospel’ is ευαγγελιον (euangelion), which literally means ‘Good News’. Thus, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is literally Good News. When put in verbal form, the Gospel becomes ευαγγελιζω (euangelizo), from which we derive our English verb “evangelize” (as well as the noun evangelism). The connotation of euangelizo is that of ‘proclamation’. Hence, in 1 John 1, the apostle John tells his readers:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

So what is the Good News about Jesus Christ that is proclaimed in the New Testament, and beyond the New Testament, through the preaching of the Church?

To answer this question, we need to go back to the beginning of the New Testament Gospels. In fact, it is beneficial to note that the largest section of the New Testament is composed of four accounts of the life of Jesus Christ which are entitled “Good News”es.

Mark 1:1 – “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The Gospel is about, or concerning, or of, Jesus of Nazareth. A friend wrote to me yesterday, asking insightfully – “what would Mark’s readers have thought of immediately when they read Mark 1:1?” Would they have thought naturally of the cross and the empty tomb? Arguably not. That certainly would have become central to their understanding of the gospel, but it would not have been the only understanding. We’ll get to that in a little bit.

III. The Heart of the Gospel

First, let’s consider the heart of the Gospel. The New Testament Gospels initially suggest that the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is repentance. The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is marked by his proclamation: “The time has come … The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15 – the parallel passages in Matthew, Luke, and John are similar.) Notice that Jesus calls his hearers to “repent and believe the good news”, that is, to believe “the Gospel,” at a time when repenting and believing could not have meant believing the Good News that Jesus had died for their sins and been raised from the dead. Temporally, Jesus is preaching the “Good News” before that facet of the “Good News” has occurred. Thus, there is more to the Gospel than the atonement and resurrection.

Nonetheless, the concept of repentance is central to the Gospel. Repentance in our contemporary society often means simply ‘saying sorry’ for your wrongdoing, and expecting forgiveness. That is not a biblical conception of repentance. Biblical repentance is a turning away, or a hating of your sin. It involves acknowledgment that you have indeed done wrong in the eyes of God, and hence need forgiveness. But it also involves a turning away from the wrongdoing, a heart-felt commitment to not falling into the sin again.

Furthermore, repentance entails the notion of transformation. As one insightful member of our church noted at a recent Bible study, repentance is turning away from our sin and turning to God. Simply confessing our sin before God and asking forgiveness is not sufficient – there is also the need to be filled with the good things of God.

Along the same lines, the ministry of John the Baptist in Luke 3 makes it clear that repentance must be accompanied by (or includes) transformation.
(Verse 3) John went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. … John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’

The crowd then asks John what they need to do – he tells them that their repentance is to be matched by a transformation in how they live their lives. They are to share what they have with those who have not; not to extort their customers; not to accuse people falsely, etc. Luke 3:3-14 makes it clear that repentance must be accompanied by “fruit” – that is, our professed turning away from sin must be matched by a life that is actually turning away from sin. Another way of saying this is that the Gospel necessarily includes the notion of transformation – being changed radically into the image of Jesus Christ. Thus, there is perhaps a different word that better encapsulates the heart of the Gospel.
Redemption incorporates the concepts of repentance and transformation. God redeems us, cleanses us of our sinfulness, and transforms us (gradually) into the image of His son, Jesus Christ.

IV. The Whole Gospel

Luke 3:3-14 also points to ways that the Gospel can be misunderstood or minimized, particularly in our contemporary evangelical Church culture.

As we pursue this train of thought, it is good to be reminded that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is multi-faceted, and all facets of the Gospel must be embraced and taught if our church is to be marked by a healthy approach to The Gospel.
This is no different than our understanding of the Triune God of the Bible. Many Christians prefer to emphasize just one aspect of God’s nature or character. But God is a composite whole – to praise or worship just one aspect of God is to worship an incomplete (at best) or false (at worst) God. For example, the Bible clearly teaches that God is Holy, Loving, Just, Almighty, All-Knowing, Faithful, and so on. Many Christians prefer to focus just on the love of God, and proclaim that God doesn’t care about our sex lives, and will redeem everyone because He is love. Other Christians prefer to focus just on the wrath of God, and proclaim fiery sermons berating parishioners on the torments of hellfire that await them if they wear the wrong clothes to church on Sunday. Now, both of those are exaggerated caricatures, but the point is clear – we can’t proclaim just one aspect of God’s character and insist that we’ve got the picture of who God is. God is God. We cannot separate Him into distinct elements or character traits. We can (and should) teach the various aspects of God’s character and nature, but should consciously steer clear of presenting one aspect as if it is the only one!

The Gospel is the Good News of what God has done through His Son Jesus Christ. The Gospel too is multi-faceted – it is not a one-dimensional proclamation.

A. The Gospel Does Not Just Apply To Individuals

A question we must ask when we discuss the Gospel as redemption is this: Who is God redeeming? Granted that the Gospel involves redemption (including repentance and transformation) – who does it apply to?

1. Individuals (the Christian) – First, it is inescapably true that God is concerned to redeem particular individuals.

Acts 2:38 makes it clear that the Gospel does, necessarily, apply to individuals. After delivering the first Christian sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter is asked by the crowd, “What then shall we do?” Peter’s response: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, will certainly never mean less that personal redemption and deliverance from the bondage to sin.

2 Corinthians 5:17-6:2 reads: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore God’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As God’s fellow workers, we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. … I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor; now is the day of salvation.”

The appeal is personal and applied – be reconciled to God. Become a new creation. Some Christians and churches downplay the individual aspect of Gospel redemption. Evangelicals (like myself) are generally pretty solid on proclaiming and embracing the individual aspect of redemption through faith in Jesus Christ. But there is more to the Gospel than individual redemption.

2. A Peculiar People (the Church) – Second, God is also involved in redeeming a people, a corporate group which is set aside, dedicated, and called to be His unique people.

Exodus 11-12 shares the story of the redemption of a peculiar people from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus is the grand redemptive narrative of the Old Testament – the miraculous deliverance wrought by the God of Israel, freeing His chosen people from bondage to slavery.

The corporate aspect of redemption is further illustrated by two groups in the New Testament – Jesus’ disciples, and the early church itself. In John 15:19, Jesus is warning His disciples that they will face the hatred of the world; then he proclaims: “As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I HAVE CHOSEN YOU out of the world.” There is, of course, a personal dimension to that calling – each of the disciples is chosen. But there is also a corporate dimension to the calling – Jesus calls a group of 12 disciples out, chooses them and calls them out of the world. When Judas ceases to be a part of the group of 12, the remaining disciples feel compelled (Acts 1) to replace Judas; Matthias joins the group, filling out their number to twelve once more.

And have you noticed how Paul begins his letters? 1 & 2 Corinthians 1:1 – “To the CHURCH OF GOD in Corinth.” Galatians 1:2 – “To the “CHURCHES in Galatia.” Ephesians 1:1 – “To THE SAINTS in Ephesus, the FAITHFUL in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:1 – “To ALL THE SAINTS in Christ Jesus at Philippi.” Colossians 1:2 – “To THE HOLY AND FAITHFUL BROTHERS in Christ at Colosse.” 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1:1 – “To THE CHURCH of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul writes to the gathered people of God – with the exception of the personal letters he writes to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.

So there is the personal aspect to the redemption God is working through His Gospel, there is also a corporate dimension to the redemption of the Gospel. God is redeeming a people, a Church. But there is one more aspect we must consider.

3. Society (the World) – Finally, God is concerned with redeeming the world through the Gospel. The repentance and transformation that the Gospel calls for applies not only to individuals, not only to the corporate people of God, but also applies to the world. In other words, the Gospel is to transform our lives as individuals, our corporate church body, and the society in which we live.

Matthew 6:10 brings this social concern to the forefront. We are to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are to seek for God’s character and nature to be reflected in our lives, our churches, and our societies. To put this bluntly, in words that sometimes cause us as evangelicals to cringe inwardly, this means that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is intimately and inextricably connected to social justice.

I want to quote somewhat extensively from Dr. Al Mohler’s blog on this issue (I do this because Dr. Mohler is the president of the seminary I am studying at, and a highly-respected and trusted evangelical spokesperson). Two weeks ago he published a blog in response to Glen Beck’s radio program, where Beck pleaded for Christians to “flee” from their church if the words “social justice” came out of the mouths of any of their church leaders. Dr. Mohler rightly takes Beck to task, and writes:

How can justice, social or private, be anything other than a biblical mandate? A quick look at the Bible will reveal that justice is, above all, an attribute of God himself. God is perfectly just, and the Bible is filled with God’s condemnation of injustice in any form. The prophets thundered God’s denunciation of social injustice and the call for God’s people to live justly, to uphold justice, and to refrain from any perversion of justice.

The one who pleases the Lord is he who will “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). Israel is told to “do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19:15). God “has established his throne for justice” (Psalm 9:7) and “loves righteousness and justice” (Psalm 33:5). Princes are to “rule in justice” (Is. 32:1) even as the Lord “will fill Zion with justice and righteousness” (Is. 33:5). In the face of injustice, the prophet Amos thundered: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:18). In a classic statement, Micah reminded Israel: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

To assert that a call for social justice is reason for faithful Christians to flee their churches is nonsense, given the Bible’s overwhelming affirmation that justice is one of God’s own foremost concerns.

Dr. Mohler does an admirable job of reminding his readers that the God of the Bible is intimately concerned with His people’s pursuit of social justice. He cites the Torah and the Psalms as well as the prophetic tradition (that is, all three divisions of the Old Testament – Law, Writings, Prophets), illustrating that social justice is not just a minor or peripheral concern in God’s Word, but rather a central dominant element.

Indeed, if you survey the prophetic books of the Old Testament, you will continually find the prophets berating God’s people for their failure in two major areas: (1) their spiritual idolatry; and (2) their social injustice (or social idolatry). Hosea emphasizes the spiritual sin of Israel; Amos focuses on the social sin. Micah rails against both.

4. The Whole Gospel – When a church focuses on just one aspect of the Gospel, they fail to be a Gospel-centered church. Dr. Mohler goes on in his blog, quite appropriately, to insist that when churches focus on social justice to the exclusion of the rest of the Gospel, that they have ceased being Gospel-faithful churches. Mark that carefully, and make no mistake about it – a church that preaches only a social gospel is not preaching or following the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By the same token, however, and make no mistake about this either – a church that preaches only an individualistic gospel is not preaching or following the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I made a mistake in responding to a question once, when I was asked whether the social dimension of the gospel is an “application” or “emanation” of the Gospel. I wrongly equivocated.

Social justice is not an application of the Gospel – rather, it is an essential aspect of the Gospel. We may as well as whether personal reconciliation to God is an ‘application’ of the Gospel – it is, in one sense, but primarily, it is an essential aspect of the Gospel. One could say that the Gospel applies to individuals, the gathered people of God, and the world. One could say that in the Gospel God is redeeming individuals, the Church, and the world. Or one could say that the Gospel is individual, corporate, and global in scope. Whichever way you put it, what cannot be forgotten is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is triadic, and if one (or more) facet of the Gospel is neglected, then the Gospel is not being preached or lived out.

Furthermore, the Gospel is not a linear continuum, where we decide which end of the spectrum we want to emphasize or focus upon. Rather, it is a triangle, and we must embrace all sides of the triangle to be faithful to the Gospel. God is in the center of the triangle, working redemption through the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is working to redeem (bring to repentance and transformation) individual Christians, a called-out Church, and society as a whole.

Some New Testament passages which carry the multifaceted (or, as John Frame would put it, triperspectival) nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are listed below. I encourage you to read them, and as you do, consider those who first heard Jesus teach and minister would have understood ‘the Gospel’. When Jesus says “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Good News [that is, the Gospel]” – how would his original audience have understood the Gospel? Would they have immediately thought of the atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, as we so often do today? No – quite simply because Jesus had not yet died and risen from the dead! Instead, the Gospel was connected to the Messianic promises through Isaiah (e.g. 61:1-12, 35:3-6), which were closely connected to deliverance from sickness, disease, and social oppression. Many other passages could be referenced – especially Jesus’ parables, which have a strong social component.

James 1:27, 2:8-26
Matthew 11:1-6 (Isaiah 61:1-12, 35:3-6)
Luke 4:14-22
Matthew 25:31-46
1 John 3:16-18, 4:7-11
Titus 1:16

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