Friday, August 26, 2011

Review of Darrell Bock, "Recovering the Real Lost Gospel"

Bock, Darrell L. Recovering the Real Lost Gospel: Reclaiming the Gospel as Good News. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.

Over the past two weeks, I have been working through Darrell Bock’s Recovering the Real Lost Gospel: Reclaiming the Gospel as Good News, a relatively compact 136-page read. Bock writes out of concern that when “some people preach the gospel today, I am not sure I hear its presentation as good news.” (2) Sometimes the gospel is a therapeutic call to self-healing; sometimes it’s only about a transaction (“a kind of spiritual root canal”); sometimes it’s only about avoiding God’s wrath; sometimes it’s about transforming political structures alone. Bock aims to discuss key biblical texts in order to answer the question: “What does the Bible say about the gospel?” (2) His thesis is that “the gospel is good news, and its core is a restored relationship with God.” (1)

The primary misconception (or misrepresentation) of the gospel that Bock addresses is the transactional approach. He affirms whole-heartedly that the gospel involves a transaction—reception of God’s forgiveness of sin through faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ. However, Bock insists that “there is more to this gospel. . . . this actually only represents the starting point for God’s good news.” (4)

Recovering the Real Lost Gospel contains seven chapters and a brief conclusion. Chapter 1 (The Gospel Starts with a Promise: Relationship in the Spirit) traces God’s consistent desire and plan to restore His intimate relationship with the human beings He created in His own image. “God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ to bring us into relationship with Him.” (20) Thus, the gospel is not primarily about canceling sin or avoiding damnation; rather, the gospel is about “gaining someone precious, a new vibrant relationship with the gracious and self-sacrificing God who created us to know and follow Him.” (17)

Chapter 2 (The Gospel is a Meal and a Washing: The Lord’s Table and Baptism) focuses on the two central ordinances of the Christian Church. Bock emphasizes that the gospel has both individual and corporate implications. “Baptism focuses on the individual’s response. The table shows how God formed a people through the gospel.” (23) Again, Bock focuses our attention on moving beyond the atoning death of Christ: “Death for sin [Jesus’ crucifixion] is not the meal; it is the ticket to gain entry.” (37)

Chapter 3 moves to a discussion of the central event of the gospel: the crucifixion of Jesus (A Unique Action Meeting a Comprehensive Need: The Cross). Bock competently traces the biblical account of fall and sin: “Humanity was created to reflect God and His rule,” (43) but instead “we live in ways that do not reflect what God desires of those He created.” (42) Bock reminds his readers that we need to understand the ‘Bad News’ of sin and indictment before we can truly appreciate the ‘Good News’ of reconciliation with God.

In Chapter 4 (The Gospel Is Inaugurated as a Gift of God’s Grace), Bock emphasizes the grace given through the gospel. He (correctly, in my opinion) insists that it is difficult for contemporary Westerners to embrace “the idea that we do not earn” salvation through the gospel (60). We all want to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. But Bock notes that “if salvation is by works of the law [or by our own efforts], then Jesus had no reason to die. There was no need for Him to cover our sins; we could cover it ourselves.” (62) Bock then goes farther, and implicitly indicts portions of the contemporary church (I cannot help but think he is addressing my own Southern Baptist tradition) for treating grace “as something common, something to note in passing as we go on living as though nothing matters but what we want or desire.” (67) The sin he is addressing is treating the gospel “only as a transaction and forget[ting] its design for the renewed life the Spirit gives.” (67) Such an attitude “can indicate perhaps that we never embraced [the gospel] in the first place.” (67) Here Bock echoes large portions of the New Testament, from John the Baptist’s command to bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8), to Jesus’ warning that not all who call on His name will be saved but only those whose lives reflect transformation through renewed relationship with the Father (Matthew 7:13-23), to Paul’s insistence that an authentic Christian has died to sin and must lead a transformed life (Romans 6:1-14), to James’ insistence that ‘faith’ which is unaccompanied by works of righteousness is not really faith at all (James 2:14-25).

Chapter 5 discusses the person of Jesus Christ in relationship to the monotheistic God of Old Testament Judaism (The Gospel Is Affirmed in Divine Action and Scripture: Showing Who Jesus Is). Bock traces Jesus’ professions of divine authority and prerogatives, and demonstrates how 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 (amongst other passages) reflects Jewish Christians’ commitment to (a) affirming the full deity of Jesus (b) within a traditional and staunch monotheistic conception of God.

Chapter 6 (Embracing the Gospel: Repentance and Faith) analyzes three key terms demonstrating how we are to respond to the gospel: turn, repent, and faith. The gospel is “a turning point that pulls us into and makes us responsive to God’s light.” (91) Repentance, or the changing of one’s mind, “entails a willingness to change direction. … Repentance is not merely an internal act of the mind; it involves an attitude that results in concrete change of practice.” (93) Faith, meanwhile, “is the intersection of repentance and turning, where mind and action unite.” (97) Faith is better understood as trust rather than mere intellectual assent or belief.

The final chapter (A Different Kind of Power Through a Way of Life Pleasing to God: Reconciliation, Peace, and Power of God unto Salvation) focuses on another three terms: reconciliation, peace, and power. The plea of the gospel is to “be reconciled to God.” (114, citing 2 Corinthians 5:18-20) Embracing the gospel brings peace in all directions: peace with God, but also “a relational peace” with others (118). Finally, the gospel gives us power (Romans 1:16-17). In his fallen state, man is “trapped in sin, helpless (read powerless) to escape the dilemma in which he finds himself.” (121) God, however, offers justification through Jesus (Romans 3:20-5:21). Sanctification comes through the Spirit (Romans 6-8). “It is good news to know that God gives us the power to live as He designed us to live. That power stands at the center of the gospel.” (121)

Bock concludes the book with a brief discussion of the love of God: the gospel is fundamentally about “a relationship rooted in God’s love, not just a transaction.” (125) Using the example of the sinful woman in Luke 7, Bock equates our gratitude and renewed life with our sense of forgiveness. “To the extent we think we are entitled to blessing from God, we will demand it from Him and not loved Him in response.” (132) Here, I think Bock places a perceptive finger upon the pulse of contemporary society: a sense of entitlement, a sense of self-righteousness, a sense of deserving more than we currently have. Even among those who disbelieve in God, there is a sense that God, if He happened to exist, owes us more than He has given us. A proper response to the gospel, however, is deep gratitude. “To the extent we appreciate His grace extended to us when we did not deserve it, we will love Him with a depth of response in appreciation for what God has done.” (132)

I have to admit, Bock’s little treatise on the gospel was not what I was expecting. I think that I was expecting a vibrant response to liberal theologians’ emasculation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—and that would indeed be a worthy project. However, Recovering the Real Lost Gospel is also a necessary corrective. Bock is right, I think, to argue that many in the evangelical church have missed the heart of the gospel by reducing it to a transaction bringing forgiveness and entrance into heaven. Bock nicely balances the issue, insisting upon the absolute centrality of the cross, and the real forgiveness for real and damning sin that we receive through Christ, while also emphasizing that the gospel is more, so much more, than “just” such a transaction.

Furthermore, there were numerous golden nuggets throughout. For example, in his discussion of the cross, Bock says: “Earthly wisdom says humanity can do whatever it wants in its own power through its own cleverness. In a sense, the cross is God’s statement that such independence will never meet human need. The irony is that the very ability to reason is a key aspect of our being made in the image of God.” (48) Amen – and a much needed reminder.

I also learned some new things through Bock’s depth and breadth of biblical research and scholarship. For example, he discusses Luke 3, where John the Baptist insists that “he is not worthy to untie the strap” of the coming Messiah’s sandal. In the context, John describes himself as a slave to the coming master. Bock notes that Jews were to avoid becoming slaves; furthermore, if they had to become slaves, “there was one thing later Jewish tradition noted a Hebrew slave should never do: he should never untie the strap of his master’s sandal in order to wash his feet. . . . Unstrapping a master’s sandal was seen as too demeaning for a Hebrew to perform.” (13) Understanding that bit of biblical history and Jewish culture brings new depth to the Baptist’s proclamation, and the heightened honor and respect and authority of the one who was to come after him.

On the whole, Recovering the Real Lost Gospel was an enjoyable read. There wasn’t anything revolutionary, nothing life-changing or earth-shattering. I am and have long been solidly in Bock’s camp, exhorting fellow evangelicals to embrace the multi-faceted richness of the gospel of Jesus Christ instead of focusing exclusively upon the atoning sacrifice. The gospel is about relationship; it is about a renewed relationship with God, reconciliation, peace, and newness of life in the Holy Spirit. This book would make a nice gift for some who perhaps have a stunted vision of what the gospel is; it would also make a nice book study for Sunday school classes or study groups (each chapter ends with helpful discussion questions).

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