What Is the Gospel?

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"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes..."
Romans 1:16

There is no idea more central to the NT than the importance of the gospel. It is the "good news" of Jesus. It is the message of Jesus and the message of the Church.

I sure wish it was that easy! Wouldn't it be great if everyone knew and understood what the gospel is, what it means, and how to proclaim it?  I am saddened that even within my peer group (pastors) there is great confusion and disagreement about what the gospel is all about.

Why is this the case?  It requires accurate and good exegesis (interpretation) of the bible to understand the gospel. In the West today, particularly in America, there is very little tolerance for learning how to interpret the bible and even less for engaging in sustained theological thought. I say this to our shame.  Instead of reflection we love expediency and "usefulness."

Somehow we have missed the reality that there is nothing more useful than deep reflection and knowledge of scripture! The bible is like every complex book and object of study. Some parts of it are hard to understand unless you understand its central themes and ideas. Yet, the themes and ideas can only be grasped as someone struggles to understand all of scripture, including the difficult parts.

Today, I wish to move toward a definition of the most important concept in all of scripture: the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is it?  How does it explain the entirety of scripture?

To help with this definition, I will look at Trevin Wax's Counterfeit Gospels as a guide. While I do not write and think exactly like Wax, I am glad he has done to leg work on moving toward a definition.

Wax describes the gospel as a three legged stool. He uses this analogy because with a three legged stool, if you remove one leg the stool falls!  Each element of the gospel is important for the entire structure to stand.

So, what is the gospel?  According to Wax it has three components.

"First, there is the gospel story, the overarching grand narrative found in the Scriptures." (16) This grand narrative is what I call the foundation for a biblical and Christian worldview. It states that God created the universe out of nothing, and all of creation was declared good. It further argues that through willful disobedience, sin entered the good creation causing all of creation to be less than its created good. Into this fallen state, God enters to redeem the fallen world in the person of Jesus, the second member of the Trinity who is fully God and fully man. Jesus' death and resurrection end the reign of sin and death, and from that moment until He returns to set all things aright, God's Kingdom is growing. As Wax states, "The gospel story is the scriptural narrative that takes us from creation to new creation, climaxing with the death and resurrection of Jesus." (16)

The second leg of the gospel is the gospel announcement. This message is the classic definition of substitutionary atonement. In other words, "God- in the person of Jesus Christ- lived a perfect life in our place, bore the penalty for our sin through His death on the cross, was raised from the dead to launch God's new creation, and is now exalted as Lord of the world." (16)  In response to this message, and individual should walk in repentance and faith.

The third leg of the gospel is that of gospel community. The message of redemption, what Wax calls the gospel announcement is not a "one-time" commitment of Jesus nor is it a commitment lived in isolation from others. Instead, through the Church, we live as a community that embodies the message of the gospel. We live a message of repentance and faith. We live in community centered around the redemptive work of Jesus. We live a life reflecting the reality of the gospel story.

While this is the definition of the gospel, Wax argues for the importance of the gospel by illustrating how six false gospel definitions, what he calls counterfeits, each deny one of the legs of the stool. These counterfeits might even be orthodox in two of the three legs, but by denying one central truth they cause the stool to fall. 

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Which of the three legs is most commonly ignored or denied, in your opinion, Greg? 

A great question.  Sorry for the delay in responding.  I did not check the Network for comments until today.

I think all of them are missing at different times and by different groups.  If you are a person who states, "I believe in Jesus" but I do not think church is important, then you are missing the gospel community.  If you are a person who states, "Christianity is primarily about social action," then you are definitely missing the second leg of the gospel announcement.  If you are a person who wished to deny the clear teaching (and experience) of total depravity mixed with the incredible truth of creation as originally good and maintaining vestiges of that goodness, then you are missing the gospel story.  

As a historian, I find it interesting that entire churches, denominations, and groups can so over emphasize one of these dimensions of the gospel that they actually lose the gospel.  Part of our task as believers is to call these individuals, groups, and churches to repentance and renewed faith in the whole gospel- in other words renewed faith in all three legs of truth.

To be biblically faithful and solidly part of the Reformed tradition, we should hold to all three even if we lean more toward one leg.

Hi Greg, your gospel formula (or Wax’s) makes some sense.  But I don’t know if your short gospel description really does justice to the full accounting of the gospel or message of salvation.  I find that Christians sometimes accuse other religious groups of having insider information that isn’t shared until after a so-called conversion or commitment is made.  But Christians do that same thing, by which important information is withheld until after the new Christian is well on his/her way to maturity.  And even then, because this additional information is less than desirable it is often never shared or is ignored by the believer.

In leg #1 for instance, it often isn’t told to the prospective Christian that apart from Christ, God sets the standard of acceptance by him at perfection.  Of course, that’s an impossible standard for humans to ever reach.  None ever have, other than Christ, and if one could reach it, he/she would be as perfectly holy as God himself, an impossibility.  So this standard of perfect holiness that God or Christianity sets is an impossible standard.    On top of that, all humans have been credited by God with the original sin of Adam.  So before any human even comes from the womb he is declared by God a sinner and has fallen short of God’s standard of perfection.  But another item missing from the gospel story, is that not only does God credit all humans with Adam’s sin but also with Adam’s fallen nature, by which a person naturally gravitates towards sin.  In fact he/she can’t help but to sin.  He/she can’t help himself because of the sinful nature credited to him/her by God.   But on top of this helpless state that a person comes into the world in, he/she is held accountable for failure to meet God’s standard of perfection, as though it’s all his/her fault.    Seems, as though quite a bit has been left out of the gospel story.  Does this failure by human kind fall to the feet of humans or to God?  Is this what we call the “justice of God.”

As to the second leg of the gospel, which you point out is the gospel announcement of substitutionary atonement, you have shortchanged that leg as well.  You didn’t mention that this atonement is a limited (the “L” of TULIP) atonement, limited to those chosen by God from the cesspool of humanity.  Only the chosen by God are enabled to respond to the gospel invitation by the powerful conviction and influence of the Holy Spirit.  The rest are left to pay for having fallen short of God’s impossible mark of perfection, especially when God has credited to all humans Adam’s original sin and given him a fallen nature by which he can’t help but to continue in sin.  Although the “few” are the recipients of this wonderful salvation, the many are left to perish (“many are called but few are chosen”).  But for those chosen, this salvation is wonderful and is good news, if you can ignore what God has in store for the rest of humanity.

Those within the Christian community speak of Christianity as being unique.  Unlike other religions that view God as using a balance or scale of justice to weigh the good and bad of individuals, Christians proclaim that their religion is one of grace alone.  But realize that before grace becomes part of the picture, Christianity has to paint an individual into a corner of sin so deep and dark that he or she is utterly helpless.  From this dark corner, not even a person’s good works count for anything.  And realize from the start that it is God who has put these people into that corner.  

But as you say, Greg, the gospel is the  “good news” of Jesus, if you’re certain you are one of the chosen ones.  Thanks for your article.

Roger,

Obviously much is lost when communication takes place only in print. Perhaps that is what has happened with your comment. Could you please clarify:

When you described the "less desiriable" "additional information" in response to each of Greg's points, were you intending to write from the perspective of someone who has misunderstood Calvinism? I noticed a few places where what you wrote is contradicted by our confessions - we expressly don't believe some of the things you wrote. 

One example:

[quote] Roger: Of course, that’s an impossible standard for humans to ever reach.  None ever have, other than Christ, and if one could reach it, he/she would be as perfectly holy as God himself, an impossibility.  So this standard of perfect holiness that God or Christianity sets is an impossible standard.[/quote] Your words seem to suggest that our inability to meet God's standard is partly attributable to our created finitude -- our "not-being-God-ness" -- which is, of course, not what we believe (BC 14, HC Q&A 6).

A second example:

[quote] Roger: And realize from the start that it is God who has put these people into that corner.[/quote] This is, perhaps, how people misunderstand Calvinism. But it is surely not what we believe or teach. [quote]Belgic Confession, Article 14: "But they subjected themselves willingly to sin... by their sin they separated themselves from God... they made themselves guilty and subject to physical and spiritual death..."[/quote] If human beings are in that dark corner, we have put ourselves there, not God. (see also Canons of Dort I.5, I.15)

I'm just confused. You suggest that what you wrote is some of the "additional information" that is needed to fully present the gospel -- but it is a distortion of what Calvinists believe, so surely shouldn't be added to a presentation of the gospel, at least not as you wrote it. Can you clarify, please? Thanks in advance.

Also, Greg, thanks for bringing this up!

 

Roger:

Where to start?  First, I encourage you to read other articles I have written so as to know that I would not, nor do I think we ever should ignore the fact, the reality, and the clear biblical teaching concerning total depravity.  The way you paint it, many Christians have lost the gospel story and the reality of the gospel announcement (to use Wax's terminology).  While I might agree, I hope to be more charitable.

What concerns me the most here is your issues with "the justice of God."  The way you wrote your response implies to my reading that you believe we ignore the question of the justice of God because we do not like the biblical answer?  Is this a correct interpretation of what you are saying?

Personally, I do not have a problem with the biblical answer.  We are guilty before a holy God not merely because of our inherited sin, but also because of our willful sin.  None of us deserve grace.  None.  That is why grace is so amazing!

Furthermore, you seem to confuse our experience of this grace, election, evangelism, etc., with God's understanding of all these events.  In our experience, we do not know who is "elected" so we are told to proclaim the gospel to all.  God has made salvation available to "all" (for example Titue 2:11), which means all types of people.  Our experience is one of us turning to God, of us sharing the message of Christ, and of us going out in ministry.  Yet, God is the one working, knowing, and leading.  Somehow in His sovereign will He is at work building His Kingdom through fallen people like you and me.  This is a mystery of the faith.  Yet, it is one clearly taught in scripture, affirmed by our confessions, and wrestled with by thoughtful folks.

What does this mean?  I will assume, pray, and hope that you are one of those thoughtful folks!  Yet, I caution you, as does Nick Monsma, that the way you are stating your questions/objections is itself questionable.  Arminius himself merely claimed to be "biblical."

The real goal is to be biblical.  We are a confessional church because we believe our confessions describe that the bible teaches.  If you do not agree with what the confessions teach as biblical, then we are at a different place in the discussion.

Nick,

I don’t think much was lost in communication, simply because my thoughts were in printed form.  I think you simply strongly disagreed with my comments to Greg. You appeal to some of the Reformed Confessions.  Most Calvinists would subject their church’s confessions to the authority and teaching of Scripture.  For most Bible believing Christians, the Bible is the ultimate authority.  Of course there is little agreement among Christians as to what the Bible teaches (interpretation).  Just consider the many differences within the CRC, but beyond that, the differences between Christian denominations gets bizarre.  There is a host of different denominations and teachings in Christendom.  It makes you wonder why there is so little agreement among Christians.  I have heard it said that Christianity has the greatest diversity of teachings of any religion.  It makes a person wonder about the validity of the Holy Spirit guiding the church in “all truth.” A Christian can make the Bible say almost anything they want.  Scripture often seems to contradict itself on many points of teaching.  Hence the variety of denominations.  The point I’m making is that as soon as I say something, you can contradict me with a specific verse.  But we’re speaking of Calvinists.  You may believe the Calvinist perspective is the most true to the Bible, but no doubt you would bow to the authority of Scripture.  So, to answer your concerns raised in your response.

As to the human inability to meet God’s standard of righteousness, I was not suggesting that people are equal to God (as Mormons may teach), but simply that God’s standard, apart from Christ, is impossible to reach.  Consider Matthew 19:25,26.  And certainly Paul suggests the same when he says, “there is none righteous, not even one.”  God set a standard that is humanly impossible to achieve. Calvinists would certainly teach this.  The conclusion:  Human reasoning would tell anyone this is less than just on the part of God; or fair, which is part of justice, to set a standard that is unreachable.

I would not expect you to agree with the idea of God putting people into that dark corner of sin.  But yet doesn’t Scripture speak for itself?  Does not Scripture teach that God credited to all of Adam’s posterity his original sin?  Don’t all people come into this world sinners, even before leaving the womb?  And won’t God hold all people accountable for that sin, a sin that Adam’s posterity didn’t actually commit?  This is a Calvinist teaching.  

Also contributing to the idea of God putting humanity in that dark corner, is that God also imputed a fallen and sinful nature to all of Adam’s posterity.  I believe, according to Calvinistic teaching, we would refer to this as a totally depraved nature (the T of TULIP), a nature that is sinful in all of its parts, and cannot help but to sin.  This nature was imputed to all of humanity by God.  And so when people cannot help but to sin, how can common sense say the acting out of this nature should not be placed at the feet of God?  Of course, Calvinists are not Arminian, and therefore can not claim that humans have a free will not to sin.  They would say a person’s will is constrained by his fallen nature and cannot help but to follow that nature and sin.  So of course, as the Belgic Confession says, “they willingly subjected themselves to sin...”, they had no other choice.  Humanity was programmed by God to sin.  So I would say, that God clearly put humanity in that dark corner.  The Biblical evidence is growing.

On top of all this is God’s electing purposes, which I mentioned in the earlier response as a “limited atonement,” limited to those chosen by God.  This also is a Calvinistic teaching.  It’s the “L” of TULIP.  This could be pictured as a parent who had been out fishing with three young children who couldn’t swim.  As the three boys got bored, they all started rocking the boat and all three fell in.  Because all three couldn’t swim, all three were destined to drown unless help was given to them.  So the father, although he could have easily saved all three, decides to save just one and leave the other two to perish.  If this parent was brought before any of our human courts or brought before a judge, the parent might say, “It was the kids’ fault that they fell in. They were all rascals. So I felt no obligation to save them all.  So I saved just one.”  Sounds like the Bible’s explanation of predestination and it doesn’t sound just at all.  

It’s too bad the Bible’s message of salvation could not have taught that God’s justice is met in the payment for sin made by Christ, and his mercy is demonstrated in the salvation of all people. But as it is, God only saves the few (“many are called but few are chosen).  The Bible teaches that God does not show favoritism and tells Christians they should not show favoritism.  But this Biblical teaching is definitely a demonstration of favoritism by which God chooses the few over the many, and it doesn’t demonstrate a truly just God.

You may still try to claim that people have painted themselves in the dark corner of sin and depravity.  But your reasoning is faulty.  You are not taking into consideration primary and secondary causation.  The Calvinist would say that in God’s electing purposes, God is the primary mover or cause of salvation and the convert’s actions are only  secondary.  The potential convert is called upon to repent and believe the gospel.  But of course the Calvinist will say that action by the believer is secondary to the primary cause, which is God’s choosing, God’s providential leading, the Holy Spirit’s leading and enabling.  And without God’s primary action the saved sinner’s action would never be possible.

The same is true in regard to God’s damnation of the human race.  God is the primary mover, according to the Bible, and humanity’s actions are secondary.  So your quote from the Belgic Confession (Art 14) is speaking only of the secondary cause of damnation.  Christians tend to do this when they don’t want to admit the less than desirable teachings of the Bible. The primary causation, as demonstrated above, is, of course, God.  The actual committal of sin is the secondary and is the act of the condemned. But remember it is the primary causation by God that ensures the sinner’s damnation.  Remember the sinner came into the world a sinner and was programmed (imputed fallen nature) by God to be a sinner, and called upon by God to meet a standard that was impossible for him to reach.  God was the primary cause.

It surprises me to hear Calvinists quote the Dutch theologian who said, “there is not one square inch  of this world  that doesn’t belong to God.”  That is to say that God is sovereign in and over all.  But he quickly denies God’s sovereignty in the huge sphere of human existence that involves the damnation of the human race, except for the few chosen.

Nick, I did say that Christians do the person targeted for evangelism a disservice by not giving a full disclosure of the God they would be responding to.  It would be very much like trying to sell a beautiful home to a potential buyer but never telling him/her that the foundation is infested with termites.  Let’s at least be truthful when evangelizing.  I’ll look forward to your rebuff.

Roger:

I should have read more before responding to your first post!  

To be completely unfair, Your issue is that you are a convinced openness of God proponent who denies total depravity?  I gather that in your mind, people are really not "dead" in sin (Ephesians 2:1-3)?  Even more to the point, you think God is unjust so Christianity is nothing but a contentious, backward, mean-spirited religion?

While I think you did state these points, I hope you did not mean them!  If so, I ask you to consider again what the bible truly teaches about God, about creation, about humanity, and about the condition of the world.  Please consider these in light of the promise that God will set all things aright when Jesus returns to make a new heaven and new earth!

I think you have several huge errors in your overall logic.  I also think you have several errors in your understanding of "Calvinism" and what the bible teaches.  

While there are clear answers to your questions, I fear this is not the forum to answer them sufficiently as it is too public.  I would be happy to continue the conversation in a more personal form of correspondence.  All we need is for you to wish to continue the discussion and for the ability to figure out how to do this.

 

 

 

Good to hear from you, Roger.  

I appreciate your honesty in your posts.  You have obviously thought about these topics a lot.  But to be fair, that has to be balanced with the form of subscription that we as officebearers sign.  Towards that, I wonder if you have ever considered writing a confessional-difficulty gravaman.  Could that possibly be a way forward for you?

Hi Greg and Jeff,

Jeff, I've been retired for four years now and doubt that a gravaman would work as I have too many concerns to list in it.  I hope you and family are doing well.  We get up to Wis. quite often and do think of you.  You may have moved from there, but wish you the best wherever you may be.  Blessings.       Greg, I'd like to do a little wrestling over some of the issues with you, as I see they are important.  So if you're open, you could send me your email address and we could follow up on our conversation.  Thanks for your openness.   Roger

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