Recovering the Gospel – I

                          And Reinterpreting Some Doctrines

When you hear the term “Gospel”, what story or message comes to mind? When you hear the statement “Believe and be saved”, what does “believe” mean to you? And when you read: “For by grace you have been saved through faith”, what is your understanding of what “faith” looks like?

Those of us in the Evangelical community have been taught a set of beliefs about who Christ was, who God is, who we are relative to Him and why, therefore, Christ died and rose to heaven. In all likelihood, somewhere along the way someone extended to us an “invitation” to ask God to forgive us and “ask Jesus into your heart” to “be saved”. We were almost assuredly also told that doing this was the only way we could avoid spending eternity in the torments of Hell after we died.

What we may not understand about these statements, and the gospel of “Believe in Jesus and avoid Hell”, is that they represent a quite modern corruption of the Christian gospel, and one that would be unrecognizable to the men who founded Christianity itself.

A Thumbnail History of The Gospel

What did the Apostles think the gospel – the “good news” that they were commanded to present to the world – was?

A case can and has been made that we can find no better presentation of the Gospel than 1 Cor 15. There is some discussion as to how far into the chapter one needs to read to see the whole thing: v5, v9 or v28. I’d say just splurge and read it all.

Other scriptural candidates for compact statements of the Gospel include Acts 2 (particularly Peter’s speech v14-41) and Acts 10:34-43.

For the first 1600 years of the Church, these declarations of Paul and Peter were the Gospel in addition, of course, to the first four books of the New Testament that we have come to call the “gospels” (especially Jesus’ own words there on the subject). From the perspective of evangelicalism, this was the message presented.

The Catholic Church didn’t so much evangelize the Gospel, as we think of the word today, as use their huge political and cultural power to ensure a steady flow of new and obedient members: basically, if you were born in Europe, and not Jewish, you were initiated into the church by default for about 1000 years. Essentially every gentile was Catholic because in order to get along socially and economically you needed to be a practicing member of the church. What the church held, and yet holds, as their core statement of belief crystallized sometime in the 4th century and was given the name “The Apostles Creed”.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of the saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Then in the early 1500’s the Reformation happened. It wasn’t that the reformers rebelled against “the faith”, or the Apostle’s Creed summary of it, as against the practices of the church – its hegemony and particularly its corruption.

Where the reformers did introduce a new belief doctrine was in the area of salvation – soteriology. The church claimed that its clergy, starting with the Pope, were Christ’s agents on earth empowered to forgive sins from which came their system of confession and “indulgences”, to take care of the really big sins.

The reformers rejected this idea of continuous (weekly) re-justification of their souls via 3rd party clergy and instead claimed, based substantially on an interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9, that their faith in Christ alone (sola fide) justified them before God.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Clergy were irrelevant to this outcome depending as it did exclusively on God’s grace.

Somewhere along the way (and this is crucial) they settled on the idea that the act of confessing this faith was a one-time event, rather than a pattern of daily living. Perhaps this view was aided by the familiar John 3:3

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Here Jesus characterizes the transformation of a faithful person into a resident of His Kingdom as being “born again”, a discrete event. The image is not of one being repeatedly reborn, as if in some Hindu cycle of periodic death and rebirth, but a single, unique change. So the idea of “having faith” became synonymous with the conversion event, leaving all of the Bible’s admonitions to subsequent obedience on the shelf.

Modernization of the Gospel

Luther, and the denomination founded to follow his teachings, preached God’s grace to the sinner. This was the core message of the Reformed movement and the inspiration for modern evangelism. It inspired generations of preachers from Johnathon Edwards to George Whitefield to John Newton to Hudson Taylor to Charles Spurgeon to Dwight Moody, and many, many more. Each of these inherited Luther’s message of God’s grace for salvation and refined and explored its presentation. The Wesley brothers, John and Charles, were also from the Lutheran tradition of evangelicalism yet they diverged from the then-mainstream Calvinist doctrines. The brothers inaugurated a form of gospel evangelicalism labeled “revivalism”. The idea behind revival meetings was to stir up the spirit within its church attendees to inspire them to redouble their efforts to evangelize their neighbors.

In 1800’s America, revivalism flourished and produced such men as DL Moody, Billy Sunday, following in some ways the lead of the Wesley brothers, and many others who specialized in the art of revivalism. Also in this period, revivalists adopted the technique, at the culmination of their (highly produced) meeting’s fervor, of calling for those in attendance to make “a decision for Christ”. This became the model used by the most successful revivalist of the 20th century, Billy Graham within his “Crusades”, and remains a staple of regular church services of many denominations today.

But is this what evangelism – the spreading of the “Good News” – was intended to be? Edwards and Spurgeon never finished a sermon by calling their audience to make “a decision for Christ”. John Wesley, taking a different track, appealed to obedience to love of God and taking up missions to love neighbors, but similarly did not ask for a “decision”.

In the 1950’s, Bill Bright and his wife started “Campus Crusade for Christ” whose purpose was to evangelize students on the campus of UCLA, and other US Colleges. Realizing that catching a passing student’s attention would require a powerful “pitch line” he came up with: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” He added to this statement to develop the Four spiritual laws (which reportedly had a strong impact on Billy Graham and his subsequent ministry), and developed a “sinner’s prayer” to be repeated by the students who “decided” to accept Christ as Lord:

“God, I know that I have sinned against you and deserve punishment. But Jesus Christ took the punishment that I deserve so that through faith in Him I could be forgiven. I place my trust in You for salvation. Thank You for Your wonderful grace and forgiveness – the gift of eternal life! Amen!”

In a lecture recounting the morphing of the gospel from Peter’s and Paul’s to Bill Bright’s, Scot McKnight says we ended up with:

“A rhetorical bundle shaped by revivalism in order to precipitate a decision”

In the lecture, he claims that as a method it is wholly ineffective at producing actual Disciples. He cites Barna data that of children raised in evangelical homes, 90% “make a decision” to follow Christ while there. However, by the time these same people are 35, only 22% of them show any signs of being Christian (e.g. church attendance, bible reading, etc.), let alone being disciples of Christ. And perhaps most tragically, this “decision method” typically also conveys assurance that the deciders have been, in fact, saved, and so are under no obligation to actually live as a follower of Christ. So many simply walk away from the Church and Christ assured that they will go to heaven when they die.

It’s hard to overstate the immense damage to the faith that this “salvation decision” version of evangelism has had. How can we work to repair this damage?

What is the Real Christian Gospel?

The first thing I would suggest we need to do is to understand what the Gospel actually is, and as a result, be able to educate those to whom we present it.

Certainly, the herald of the Good News was John the Baptizer (Mt. 3:2),

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

We can’t take this call lightly, since John was emphasizing a repentance – a turning away from the course of the lives of his hearers from whatever they had been as a response to God’s call to live in obedience to Him, something almost completely absent in the modern evangelical message.

As we noted earlier, probably the best scriptural summary of the Gospel is found in 1 Corinthians 15.

At first reading (especially the early verses) Paul’s summary doesn’t sound all that far from Bill Bright’s: Christ died for our sins, was buried and was raised on the third day. But we can’t miss the context Paul gives to these facts: that they were done “in accordance with the Scripture.” This should immediately alert us that these events were predicted in some earlier scriptures (Isaiah 53:5, Hosea 6:2, Isaiah 53:10) long before Christ arose.

Jesus was fulfilling something here – God’s plan. We’ll return to this in a moment.

Now following these initial declarations, Paul gets to the punchline in v12-28 that Christ, in being raised from the dead, has defeated death itself[i], the same death that was introduced to humanity by Adam’s sin in the garden. If the final act of Jesus on earth was to be raised from the dead to sit at the right hand of God as Lord, then the undoing of the condition of certain death is the overriding purpose of His plan. The interpretation of this message is: God’s plan from the beginning was to live with His humanity, and through Jesus He had established the means for that plan finally to be realized.

The second dimension of the Gospel we need to see is its universal indiscrimination. The purpose of Peter’s experience recorded in Acts 10 and which he reports in Acts 11 is to document that Jesus’ act of sacrifice was on behalf of everyone who believed Him to be their Lord. (Notice: not their “Savior”. The two are different.) This message is: “Whoever you are, if you believe and live for Christ, you will experience His life.”

The third and perhaps most significant yet overlooked aspect of the Gospel is its declaration of God’s provision to us, in response to our turning to Christ, of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7, Titus 3:5), as prophesied in Joel 2:28. Peter emphasizes this in Acts 11:16-17 as had Paul earlier in 1 Cor in 3:16.

The Kingdom of God on earth (as it is in heaven) was inaugurated by Christ’s death, resurrection and provision of His Spirit within those who place their trust in Him.  This is the ‘now’ meaning of the Kingdom, of its ‘now and not yet’ character.  Its future manifestation is described in Ephesians 1:7-10, Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; and Revelation 21:1 that announce the restoration of Creation by God as He intended it to be. The important thing to note is that the restoration of God’s Kingdom, one in which He has communion with His people, is God’s principal objective vis-a-vis His Creation.

But to understand this plan we need to understand at least something of the history of Israel.

God’s Plan For His Creation

Space prevents even a cursory historical study here – so we’ll only touch on the key points.

In Genesis God creates the Universe, and soon after makes humans, as represented by Adam (“man”) and Eve. Soon after, things go “south” culminating in the story of Noah and God’s judgement on what mankind had become through bringing a flood.

Afterward, we follow the descendants of Noah culminating in Abram who God selects to be the progenitor of and a blessing to “the nations” (Gen 12:2-3). This is the beginning of Israel within God’s plan.

Through Abram comes Isaac, and then Jacob, the immediate father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

One of their number, Moses, is called by God to redeem them from their enslavement in Egypt, and lead them to their own land – “Israel”. Along the way, He provides them with laws for living which if they will follow, He will bless them in return. This is His Covenant with them — which they promptly violate, leading to a 40 year sojourn in the wilderness before their next generation is allowed to enter the land.

The history of the nation Israel is littered with failure to be faithful to their LORD, judgment wrought on them by God Who thereafter extends His mercy to them. Rinse and repeat. However, associated with their exile to Babylon, we begin reading prophecies of two things: 1) His provision of His “suffering servant” – His “anointed one”, the Messiah who will come from the line of King David (Isaiah 53, Isaiah 11:1, Zechariah 9:9). And 2) His announcement that He will be instituting a New Covenant with Israel and all humanity (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:26-27, etc.) that will “not be like” the Old Covenant given through Moses. The old covenant was a catalog of rules to live by for the natural people of Israel. The New Covenant is a promise that God will transform the natural person into one who, having His law written “on your heart”, wants to follow Him and is able to live the life He desires.

So the overarching theme is that natural Israel failed to be faithful to their LORD which necessitated God’s intervention both with His Servant Jesus, and His sacrifice for the sins of not just Israel, but of “the whole world” (1 John 2:2), inaugurating His “New Covenant”. Jesus called those who would believe and trust Him those who would enter and inherit the “Kingdom of God”.

So finally, through Jesus, God has made provision to live in communion with His Creation as He intended from the beginning. This is the Gospel.

What Do We Need to Do?

We’re called by God to “repent… and believe” (Mark 1:15) to enter into His New Covenant.

We often find proselytes intimidated by the call to “repent” (a crucial message missing from the modern Evangelical formula), meaning to answer God’s call to turn away from their previous life and to turn to Christ’s life. What this means is: reject your previous life and desires and priorities, and seek Christ’s life and priorities.

Their hesitancy is perhaps understandable – without the Holy Spirit. But if the evangelist had any personal experience with its power, he could effectively quell their fears and hesitancy through his own testimony of its power and graces (Gal 5:22-23, Acts 20:32).

The whole purpose of the Holy Spirit living in the believer is to empower him to lead a Christ-led life. The Spirit in the believer changes him. He’s no longer drawn to the old worldly things he was once was. And, to the extent that he still possesses some attraction to them, the Spirit gives him the strength to turn aside from them (1 Cor 10:13). The only thing the believer has to do in the bargain is keep himself out of the Spirit’s way – to not impede Him in directing his life (James 4:7).

This is what the follower of Christ does. It’s not his willpower or his piety or anything of his. It is his submission to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform him into a new person – a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17).  And if this is, in fact, the new nature of the Christian with his transformed desire to serve his Lord, it’s quite easy then to see how James’ claim  (in James 2:19-20) is precisely identical to what we would expect and not at all at cross-purposes with Paul’s or Peter’s views of salvation seen through our old doctrine:

“You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?”

No one without the Spirit cannot follow Christ. Anyone who trusts God for his life and so has the Spirit will follow Christ and belong to Him (Romans 8:9, 11).

Knowing about the Spirit’s help should give us an assurance that the scary prospect of abandoning control of our lives to God will actually work out. But what about the “believe” part? And what does the Bible mean by “believe”.

This is a fairly hotly debated subject at the moment. The Greek word is 4100. πιστεύω pisteuō, pist-yoo’-o, and its accepted definition is:

From 4102; to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), that is, credit; by implication to entrust (especially one’s spiritual well being to Christ).

This is where the presentation of the Gospel, in my opinion, has fallen down. The word “believe” in common English usage means, “have confidence in the truth of” or “agree with”. It’s an intellectual conclusion. You think something is true and so you “believe” it.

But this word “pisteuō” is different than that. This word has more the sense of “rely on” or “entrust”. You don’t just “think” it’s true, you’re relying on the fact that it is true. There’s something at stake for you in the position you take and so, having agreed with the proposition, you are betting your life on the truth of the proposition. You’re all in, you’re committed to living as if it were true, not a dispassionate external observer.

This is what the Bible means when it uses the word “believe”, or its cognate “faith” (4102. πίστις pistis, pis’-tis;) when it is talking about the belief/faith that leads to salvation. So when we read it or preach it, this is what must be communicated.

Matthew Bates has written in Salvation by Allegiance Alone a quite compelling argument for this very same conclusion. In it, he concludes that: “the gospel is purposed toward bringing about the practical obedience characteristic of allegiance to a king—what I have termed enacted allegiance”.

Bates says the Gospel, un-controversially, is comprised of the following eight points:

  1. Jesus the King: preexisted with the Father
  2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David
  3. died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures
  4. was buried
  5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures
  6. appeared to many
  7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord
  8. will come again as judge

To Bates too, the Gospel is the culmination of God’s plan from the beginning. But his basic point, like mine here, is that it is so much broader and deeper and impactful than simply what happens to you when you die. Borrowing from a review of Bates’ book by William W. Klein of the Denver Seminary:

“The book ends with a chapter entitled “Practicing Allegiance.” In it Bates offers a suggestion about a better way to invite people to salvation—to do evangelism. Unless people come to embrace the actual gospel (again, recall the eight points above), they can’t be saved. He goes so far as to say, “We must stop asking others to invite Jesus into their hearts and start asking them to swear allegiance to Jesus the king” (199). He insists that we dare not give people “assurance” of salvation on the basis of their acceptance of a gospel invitation, but base it on the evidence of their loyalty to Jesus. Good works growing out of allegiance to Jesus secure genuine salvation; it is not secured by praying a prayer to “accept Christ” whether or not a person ever does good works.” (emphasis mine)

For myself, I’m not sure “allegiance” is the right word. But what is clear is that we need a word that conveys the idea of being invested in the truth of Jesus, not just acknowledgment of it.

What About Ephesians and Romans?

I assume many will chafe at the notion that the salvation part of the Gospel message is dependent in any way on something they do or embody. The Reformed branch of the church has a long history of thoughtfully contesting this point. Once again, the key verse giving rise to this rejection is Ephesians 2:8, (and similar statements e.g. Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16):

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

This objection is founded on three fundamental misunderstandings:

  1. No one who uses this as a proof text for God-ordained, unilateral salvation absent evidence of a transformed life properly understands the word “faith” – pistis (see above);
  2. No one disputes that salvation is an unmerited gift of God. What proponents of this verse miss theologically, however, is that having been granted, through Christ, a path to salvation (“faith”), those who sincerely seek to receive it must obediently walk in that path (Mt 7:13-14, Luke 11:28), not merely agree that it is the path. Walking in the path doesn’t save us. (Salvation is from God.) Failing to walk in it, however, belies our “faith” and excludes us from partaking in the mercy that was Jesus’ sacrifice for us. (Luke 13:34, James 1:25, Rom 6:4).
  3. Walking in faith is not “your own doing” that Paul was arguing against in Eph 2:8, or “works” that he argues against elsewhere[ii]. It is the Holy Spirit’s doing. If it were our doing, quite obviously we would not read this same Paul declaring his mission to the Romans (1:4-5) as “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,” and exhorting the Corinthians (1 Cor 7:19) that “Keeping God’s commandments is what counts.” Statements like this seem to imply that Paul’s understanding of “pisteuō/pistis” is different than ours.

God is Sovereign. He gives salvation and its eternal life to those who through their faith in Christ, receive His Spirit and live in obedience to Him (John 14:15). Wherever that faith originates, its effect is to invite the Spirit to animate its holder to (want to) live and act for God.

If you don’t have this Spirit living within you and guiding your actions and thoughts, you do not belong to Jesus (Romans 8:9), no matter how much you might agree with the proposition that “Jesus is Lord”. Certainly no one in this condition should be representing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone.

Conclusion

We don’t love our neighbors by pitching them a distorted, superficial version of the story of God redeeming us to Him through Jesus Christ. Jesus’s advent, death and resurrection is the pinnacle of God’s plan for His Creation.

Jesus is the only “man” to self-resurrect from the dead. Again, if God’s ultimate act is to redeem Jesus from the dead, then the defeat of death for all who follow Christ is the headline.

C.S. Lewis captures the magnificence of this event perfectly in his “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, in which the hero, Aslan, sacrificially dies, yet resurrects to bring justice and salvation to his world. In a children’s novel, this is attention-grabbing stuff (“At the sound of His roar, sorrows will be no more”). But in real life, it is awe-inspiring and transformational. The message of the Gospel is that Jesus has changed history and our future. He’s changed everything for us if we will but trust Him (Psalm 52:8).

The free gift of God of His Spirit within us is His signature (2 Cor 1:21-22) that He has equipped us to salvation, through our sincere trust of and obedience to His Son for our lives.

Faith in Jesus is not agreement that Jesus is who He said He was, or that the Bible accurately records what He did. Faith in Jesus is abdication of ourselves in deference to our Lord and King and His purposes for our lives.

The Gospel hasn’t changed.  Our presentation of it has.  If we learn to present the entire Gospel in its fullness and majesty, we won’t have to ask our hearers for a “decision for Christ”. If they receive it, the Holy Spirit will work within them to convict them to repentance (1 Thess 1:5).

Second Section –>


[i] 1 Cor 15:26 is translated “26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”, giving a future tense to the present-indicative-passive verb involved (καταργεῖται). So I am suspicious of the translation, though Paul does describe it in future tense in later verses discussing the ultimate Parousia.

[ii] Paul here as throughout his epistles is arguing to his Jewish readers that simply following their cultural rituals and traditions born of the Mosaic Law (“works”) does nothing to improve their standing with God. As he makes clear in the first three chapters of Romans, everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, is a sinner and has fallen short of the Glory of God.