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The Gospel (Part 3)

In The Gospel (Part 1) we asked why the gospel? In The Gospel (Part 2) we looked at what the gospel is. I now want to sharpen the lens another notch to help us behold the unspeakable riches of the gospel, as well as what all this means in terms of our relationship to God, to each other, and to the world. Stated as a question: how do the apostles unpack the meaning of God acting in Christ for us?

What has God achieved for us?

When the apostles proclaimed God’s actions in Christ, they also explained the theological significance of God’s actions for all who trusted in Christ. For example, it was not enough to proclaim that Jesus was born—a bare event in history—but also that Jesus was born under the law to redeem those under the law, revealing the theological significance of the historical event (Gal 4:4-5). Or again, it was not even enough for the apostles to proclaim that Christ died—a historical fact—but also that Christ died for our sins, a theological assertion (1 Cor 15:3). Or once more, it was not enough to say that Jesus was raised—a visible and verifiable reality—but also that he was raised for our justification (Rom 4:25), an invisible meaning for that reality.

So, there is meaning behind God acting in Christ, and the apostles ensure people understand that meaning in their proclamation of the gospel. Further below we will make a distinction between the gospel itself and the gospel’s results/implications. However, for now we are still working within the framework of what we might call the gospel proper (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2: The Gospel Proper

Figure 2 Gospel Proper Table

The apostles heralded to the unbelieving world both the actions of God in Christ as well as their meaning, a meaning that unfolded God’s mercy toward the repentant but that threatened God’s judgment for the scoffer. Surely, that is because their Savior taught them to do so, namely, to interpret his person and work in light of what God revealed in the Scriptures (Luke 24:45-47; John 5:39-47). The reason they know Christ died for our sins is that Christ has been revealed as heaven’s unblemished lamb, the Law’s ultimate curse bearer, our ransom-payment for freedom, God’s chosen Suffering Servant, and so forth. At every turn, the apostles include in their gospel message both that God has acted in Christ and what his actions mean for a world of sinners who stand separated from their Maker. For those who repent and join themselves to Christ by faith, God’s actions in Christ mean their salvation. For those who reject Christ, God’s actions in Christ confirm their pending condemnation.

In addition to the examples we provided briefly above from Galatians 4:4-5, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, and Romans 4:25, Figure 3 below includes several more examples from the New Testament where the apostles unpack the meaning of God acting in Christ. The examples provided are by no means exhaustive, but are meant only to highlight the pattern of teaching in the apostles’ proclamation of God acting in the person and work of Jesus Christ from before creation through his earthly ministry to his final return.

Figure 3: God’s Actions in Christ & Their Meaning

EVENTS:
How did God act in Christ?

MEANING:
What does God actually achieve?

Christ’s Pre-existent Plan

He elects and predestines us “in Christ” (Eph 1:3-4; Rom 8:28); decrees the end for the cosmos (Eph 1:9-10; Co1:16-17; 2 Tim 1:9); establishes the mission for the Son (John 17:1-5).

Christ’s Humble Incarnation

He identifies with those who rebelled (John 1:14; Rom 8:3-4; Heb 2:14); fulfills the promises given to Adam, Abraham, Israel, and David for a human descendent that saves the world (1 John 3:8 [Gen 3:15]; Gal 3:16-4:5 [Gen 22:17]; Rom 1:3 [2 Sam 7:12-16]); ensures hope for the world in a new Adam (Rom 5:12-21; Heb 2:1-9).

Christ’s Perfect Life and Sufferings

He meets the Law’s penal and positive requirements through obedience (Matt 3:15; Rom 5:19; Gal 4:4-5; 2 Cor 5:21); over-comes Satan’s temptations (Matt 4:1-11; Heb 4:15); supplies an unblemished lamb (1 Pet 1:19).

Christ’s Crucifixion and Death

He atones for the sins of many (1 John 2:2; 4:10); redeems from the curse of the Law (Gal 3:13); propitiates God’s wrath (Rom 3:25-26); redeems from slavery to sin (Rom 6:1-14; 1 Cor 6:20); forgives sinners (Matt 26:27-28); reconciles rebels to God (2 Cor 5:19); secures the new covenant promises (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25); disarms rulers and authorities (Col 2:15).

Christ’s Victorious Resurrection

He delivers from death (1 Cor 15:50-57); silences the devil’s threats (Heb 2:14-15); vindicates the elect (Rom 4:5); begins the final resurrection age (1 Cor 15:20); inaugurates the new creation (2 Cor 5:17).

Christ’s Present Reign

He sends the Holy Spirit (John 7:38-39; 14:26); calls sinners to himself (1 Cor 1:18-25); regenerates the elect (John 6:37, 44, 65); adopts children through faith (Gal 4:5); sets apart believers for himself and makes them progressively holy (1 Cor 6:11; Heb 10:14); establishes and upholds the new community (Matt 16:18; 28:20); provides heavenly intercession (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25).

Christ’s Final Return

He glorifies the saints (Rom 8:17, 30; 2 Thess 1:10-12); establishes the final community (Rev 19:7-8); ensures God’s present patience (2 Pet 3:9); exercises the final judgment (Matt 25:31-32).

How then should we live?

Once we understand God’s saving acts in Christ and their meaning—both of which the apostles include in their proclamation of “the gospel”—we are then prepared to understand the results of the gospel. According to our reading of Scripture, it is crucial to maintain the distinction between the gospel (i.e., God’s actions in Christ and their meaning) and what grows out of the gospel (i.e., the results for our individual lives and the church). Failure to maintain the distinction between the gospel and its results reduces Christianity to a new ethic without the power of the cross, a moral religion without redeeming grace, or a written code devoid of the Spirit.

For example, while loving God above all and loving your neighbor as yourself are essential elements of the Christian life, they are not, properly speaking, the gospel. Precious as these two commandments are, they do not reveal how God has acted in Christ or help others see that apart from God working favorably toward them in Christ, they lack the moral ability to love God and love their neighbor at all. For anyone to say the gospel amounts to a couple of commandments would be to sever the very lifeline sinners have to God’s power for salvation (Rom 1:16-17).

Or consider the ethical issues surrounding marriage and abortion. Upholding traditional marriage is important because it reflects truths within the gospel message—namely, Christ laying down his life for sinners—but traditional marriage is not the gospel. We should also labor with courage and wisdom to stop the holocaust of abortion and pray that God would bring justice for the unborn, but our Pro-life views are not articulations of the gospel. Pro-life may be a serious implication of the gospel. However, the gospel itself is nothing more and nothing less than what God has done for us in Jesus Christ; and therein lays the only hope that any of our social ethics would change to begin with.

The Scriptures will also not allow us to supplant the gospel with our personal testimony, our own response to the saving message of Christ. Many times, people believe they have shared the gospel with someone else simply because they told them about their conversion experience? Our conversion may be an amazing result of God acting in Christ to bring us to himself through faith and repentance, but our conversion is not the good news others must embrace for salvation. To proclaim the gospel rightly with anybody, we will preach the person of Jesus Christ and offer him as the all-sufficient Savior to those listening.

Maintaining this distinction between the gospel and its results also means we should avoid any language that suggests the gospel can amount to our own way of living, such as in the popular exhortation, “Live the gospel!” In the words of Graeme Goldsworthy, “Christians cannot ‘live the gospel,’ as they are often exhorted to do. They can only believe it, proclaim it, and seek to live consistently with it. Only Jesus lived (and died) the gospel. It is a once-for-all finished and perfect event done for us by another.”[1] So, while our Christian life should authenticate the message we preach—as seen in the apostles injunction to “obey the gospel” or to “walk in step with the gospel”—the message we preach is not our Christian life, but Christ and him crucified and risen. We offer people Jesus for salvation, not our Christian living.[2]

Thus, we want to maintain the same distinction the apostles themselves make as we consider the gospel and not confuse the message of salvation with the results of the message of salvation taking root in believers’ lives. We will work through a few biblical examples below, but for now, we might illustrate the distinction as in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4: The Gospel & Its Results

Figure 4 Gospel and Results

To be clear, the distinction between the gospel and its results does not mean the results are somehow optional. In the same way that James could not conceive of any genuine faith that was devoid of good works, so also we should see that any genuine embrace of the gospel will necessarily result in inner-transformation for the individual and the community. Along with proclaiming God’s acts in Christ and their meaning (i.e., the gospel)—and in some cases assuming the church’s awareness of the gospel—the apostles also exhorted people to conform their lives to the gospel. What the gospel revealed happened to them as individuals and a community—that was to change their affections, shape their attitudes, transform their identity, set their priorities, and inform their livelihood. So significant were the gospel’s results that Paul could rebuke Peter for not walking in step with the gospel (Gal 2:14) and even eternal condemnation awaits those who refuse to obey the gospel (2 Thess 1:8; 1 Pet 4:17).

Understanding this is crucial when we think about our role as ministers of reconciliation. Not only should we proclaim the gospel itself, but we must also show people how the truth of the gospel should affect their lives on a very practical level, whether in their relationship with God, with each other, with the world, or with creation itself. Since God acting in Christ is as comprehensive as summing up all things in Christ and bringing everything under his rule (Eph 1:9-10; 1 Cor 15:27-28), then the gospel message itself will have results and implications for our lives that are just as comprehensive.

Whenever we teach individual believers and the church about these comprehensive results of the gospel, we are not merely offering them good suggestions or good ideas for living, but the actual way of life that must stem from spiritual union they have with the living and reigning Christ. In the words of the Great Commission, we are not merely teaching people to know everything Jesus commanded, but we are teaching people to observe everything Jesus commanded.

How must we respond?

Therefore, we might say that part of the gospel’s results is a demanded response to the authoritative results/implications. That response consists of repentance from sin and faith in Christ. When Jesus and the apostles preached the gospel of the kingdom, they also demanded that people enter the kingdom through repentance and faith (Matt 4:17). Faith and repentance are two terms that summarize the demanded response to the gospel and its authoritative results. Though Scripture may present faith and repentance together (e.g., Acts 20:21) or in separate places, they are two sides of the same coin. Through the gospel, God always demands both of the hearers (Acts 10:43; 17:30; John 3:16; 6:29; 1 John 3:23). Will Metzger states it aptly: “Repentance without faith will lead to sorrow and mere legalistic resolutions…Faith without repentance is unfounded optimism, leading to self-deception.”[3]

Faith is a gift granted by God to those his word has humbled (John 10:14-18; Eph 2:8-9; Phil 1:29; Col 1:3-4). It is the absolute dependence and casting of the whole person upon Jesus Christ. Faith includes a persevering trust and an enduring confidence that God fulfills and provides his saving promises through Jesus Christ alone (1 Tim 1:4, 14). While grace is God’s sovereign unmerited favor by which someone is saved, faith is the enabling dependence provided for that someone to be saved. Faith, then, is the only means by which God justifies and sanctifies sinners in uniting them to Jesus (Rom 3:21-26; Eph 2:8-10; 2 Thess 2:13).

Accompanied by faith, repentance describes the transformation of the whole person when it submits to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Repentance includes not only the person’s genuine sorrow for sin and their despising of it, but also their total forsaking of it for the purpose of ongoing obedience to Jesus (Luke 3:8; Acts 8:22; 20:21; 26:20; 2 Cor 7:10; Heb 6:1). After quoting Luke 14:26 and 33, J. I. Packer describes repentance as “the settled refusal to set any limit to the claims which [Christ] may make on [our] lives.”[4]

Obeying the gospel and abiding by its revealed results is costly for the Christian but also rewarding. For, by forsaking the old life without Christ, it costs him. However, it is in the forsaking of the old that he also gains the new life in Christ, his reward (Matt 13:44). This again recalls how Scripture treats repentance and faith as two aspects of one action in coming to Christ and submitting to his lordship. To trust in Christ for salvation is not only to see him as the most valuable treasure (faith), but also to forsake whatever prevents one from gaining him as their greatest treasure (repentance). Such faith and repentance does not cease upon conversion. Both actions characterize the daily lives of Christ’s disciples, whose hearts he has conquered and made his own through the gospel (Matt 6:12; Acts 26:20; Gal 2:20; Heb 12:2-3; 1 Pet 1:5-9). This is how people must respond to the gospel of God’s grace.

Such a demanded response is daunting, when considering the nature of our fleshly appetites and the ongoing temptations of the world and the devil. However, we would do well to remember that the results demanded by God through the gospel, he also effects through his Spirit. What God requires he also creates through spiritual renewal and empowerment.[5] In fact, the Spirit uses the gospel to produce change in the human heart. This is why Paul could call the gospel “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16-17). It’s why 1 Corinthians 1:18 says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” In the same way God flexed his arm in the exodus deliverance, rescuing his people from slavery in Egypt, the Spirit uses the gospel to deliver us from slavery to sin and to empower us to love Christ more. So, when we speak of the gospel’s demands, we simultaneously speak of what the gospel effects by the Spirit in those who walk by faith in Christ—not by faith in their faith, or faith in the results they can see, but by faith in Christ as he is revealed in the gospel.

A Few Examples

In order to provide further clarity on working through the gospel as well as its results, we now consider a few examples from the apostles’ proclamation in the New Testament in Figure 5 below:

Figure 5: Examples from Scripture

Figure 5 Examples

________

[1]Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 58-59. Goldsworthy then continues to show how this effects the way we read the Bible.

[2]Another place where I have encountered the failure to distinguish the gospel from its results is in the writings of N. T. Wright on justification language in Paul. Wright blurs the distinction by defining “justification” in terms of covenant membership (i.e., Jew-Gentile reconciliation) rather than in terms of one’s righteous standing before God (i.e., God-man reconciliation). In so doing, Wright confuses the results or “fruit” of justification with the meaning or “root” of justification. Cf. Peter T. O’Brien, “Was Paul a Covenantal Nomist,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, eds. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 290.

[3]Will Metzger, Tell the Truth: The Whole Gospel to the Whole Person by Whole People (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 76.

[4]J. I. Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1961), 72.

[5]For example, God demands faith, but he also secures it for us (Luke 22:20 [Jer 31:31-33]; John 3:16 [6:37]). God demands obedience, but also provides it (Rom 6:17, Paul gives thanks to God that they “obeyed from the heart”). God demands we flee sexual immorality, but also produces such freedom not only by deliverance from slavery, but also by giving our body to the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20). God demands perseverance in faithfulness, but his demands actually serve as the very means of our perseverance (Heb 4, 6, 10).