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What do we mean by "the gospel"? Answering this question is a bit more complex than we often assume. Not everything the Bible teaches can be considered "the gospel" (although it can be argued that all biblical doctrine is necessary background for understanding the gospel). The gospel is a message about how we have been rescued from peril. The very word gospel has as its background a news report about some life-altering event that has already happened.
1. The gospel is good news, not good advice. The gospel is not primarily a way of life. It is not something we do, but something that has been done for us and something that we must respond to. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament—the Septuagint—the word euangelizo (proclaim good news) occurs twenty-three times. As we see in Psalm 40:9 (ESV)—"I have told the glad news of [your] deliverance in the great congregation"—the term is generally used to declare the news of something that has happened to rescue and deliver people from peril. In the New Testament, the word group euangelion (good news), euangelizo (proclaim good news), and euangelistes (one who proclaims good news) occurs at least 133 times. D. A. Carson draws this conclusion from a thorough study of gospel words:
Because the gospel is news, good news ... it is to be announced; that is what one does with news. The essential heraldic element in preaching is bound up with the fact that the core message is not a code of ethics to be debated, still less a list of aphorisms to be admired and pondered, and certainly not a systematic theology to be outlined and schematized. Though it properly grounds ethics, aphorisms, and systematics, it is none of these three: it is news, good news, and therefore must be publicly announced.
2. The gospel is good news announcing that we have been rescued or saved. And what are we rescued from? What peril are we saved from? A look at the gospel words in the New Testament shows that we are rescued from the "coming wrath" at the end of history (1 Thess 1:10). But this wrath is not an impersonal force — it is God's wrath. We are out of fellowship with God; our relationship with him is broken.
In perhaps the most thoroughgoing exposition of the gospel in the Bible, Paul identifies God's wrath as the great problem of the human condition (Rom 1:18–32). Here we see that the wrath of God has many ramifications. The background text is Genesis 3:17–19, in which God's curse lies on the entire created order because of human sin. Because we are alienated from God, we are psychologically alienated within ourselves—we experience shame and fear (Gen 3:10). Because we are alienated from God, we are also socially alienated from one another (v. 7 describes how Adam and Eve must put on clothing, and v. 16 speaks of alienation between the genders; also notice the blame shifting in their dialogue with God in vv. 11–13). Because we are alienated from God, we are also physically alienated from nature itself. We now experience sorrow, painful toil, physical degeneration, and death (vv. 16–19). In fact, the ground itself is "cursed" (v. 17; see Rom 8:18–25).
Since the garden, we live in a world filled with suffering, disease, poverty, racism, natural disasters, war, aging, and death—and it all stems from the wrath and curse of God on the world. The world is out of joint, and we need to be rescued. But the root of our problem is not these "horizontal" relationships, though they are often the most obvious; it is our "vertical" relationship with God. All human problems are ultimately symptoms, and our separation from God is the cause. The reason for all the misery—all the effects of the curse—is that we are not reconciled to God. We see this in such texts as Romans 5:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:20. Therefore, the first and primary focus of any real rescue of the human race—the main thing that will save us—is to have our relationship with God put right again.
3. The gospel is news about what has been done by Jesus Christ to put right our relationship with God. Becoming a Christianisabouta changeof status. First John 3:14(emphasisadded) statesthat "we have passed from deathtolife,"not we are passing from death to life. You are either in Christ or you are not; you are either pardoned and accepted or you are not; you either have eternal life or you don't. This is why Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones often used a diagnostic question to determine a person's spiritual understanding and condition. He would ask, "Are you now ready to say that you are a Christian?" He recounts that over the years, whenever he would ask the question, people would often hesitate and then say, "I do not feel that I am good enough." To that, he gives this response:
At once I know that ... they are still thinking in terms of themselves; their idea still is that they have to make themselves good enough to be a Christian ... It sounds very modest but it is the lie of the devil, it is a denial of the faith ... you will never be good enough; nobody has ever been good enough. The essence of the Christian salvation is to say that He is good enough and that I am in Him!
Lloyd-Jones's point is that becoming a Christian is a change in our relationship with God. Jesus' work, when it is believed and rested in, instantly changes our standing before God. We are "in him."
Ever since reading J. I. Packer's famous essay introducing John Owen's Death of Death in the Death of Christ, I have liked "God saves sinners" as a good summary of gospel:
God saves sinners. God — the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father's will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves — does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners — men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God's will or better their spiritual lot.
THE GOSPEL IS NOT THE RESULTS OF THE GOSPEL
The gospel is not about something we do but about what has been done for us, and yet the gospel results in a whole new way of life. This grace and the good deeds that result must be both distinguished and connected. The gospel, its results, and its implications must be carefully related to each other — neither confused nor separated. One of Martin Luther's dicta was that we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that remains alone. His point is that true gospel belief will always and necessarily lead to good works, but salvation in no way comes through or because of good works. Faith and works must never be confused for one another, nor may they be separated (Eph 2:8 – 10; Jas 2:14, 17 – 18, 20, 22, 24, 26).
I am convinced that belief in the gospel leads us to care for the poor and participate actively in our culture, as surely as Luther said true faith leads to good works. But just as faith and works must not be separated or confused, so the results of the gospel must never be separated from or confused with the gospel itself. I have often heard people preach this way: "The good news is that God is healing and will heal the world of all its hurts; therefore, the work of the gospel is to work for justice and peace in the world." The danger in this line of thought is not that the particulars are untrue (they are not) but that it mistakes effects for causes. It confuses what the gospel is with what the gospel does. When Paul speaks of the renewed material creation, he states that the new heavens and new earth are guaranteed to us because on the cross Jesus restored our relationship with God as his true sons and daughters. Romans 8:1–25 teaches, remarkably, that the redemption of our bodies and of the entire physical world occurs when we receive "our adoption." As his children, we are guaranteed our future inheritance (Eph 1:13–14, 18; Col 1:12; 3:24; Heb 9:15; 1 Pet 1:4), and because of that inheritance, the world is renewed. The future is ours because of Christ's work finished in the past.
We must not, then, give the impression that the gospel is simply a divine rehabilitation program for the world, but rather that it is an accomplished substitutionary work. We must not depict the gospel as primarily joining something (Christ's kingdom program) but rather as receiving something (Christ's finished work). If we make this error, the gospel becomes another kind of a salvation by works instead of a salvation by faith. As J. I. Packer writes:
The gospel does bring us solutions to these problems [of suffering and injustice], but it does so by first solving ... the deepest of all human problems, the problem of man's relation with his Maker; and unless we make it plain that the solution of these former problems depends on the settling of this latter one, we are misrepresenting the message and becoming false witnesses of God.
A related question has to do with whether the gospel is spread by the doing of justice. Not only does the Bible say over and over that the gospel is spread by preaching, but common sense tells us that loving deeds, as important as they are as an accompaniment of preaching, cannot by themselves bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Francis Schaeffer argued rightly that Christians' relationships with each other constitute the criterion the world uses to judge whether their message is truthful — so Christian community is the "final apologetic." Notice again, however, the relationship between faith and works. Jesus said that a loving community is necessary for the world to know that God sent him (John 17:23; cf. 13:35). Sharing our goods with each other and with the needy is a powerful sign to nonbelievers (see the relationship between witness and sharing in Acts 4:31 – 37 and Acts 6). But loving deeds — even though they embody the truths of the gospel and cannot be separated from preaching the gospel — should not be conflated with it.
The gospel, then, is preeminently a report about the work of Christ on our behalf—that is why and how the gospel is salvation by grace. The gospel is news because it is about a salvation accomplished for us. It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel.
THE GOSPEL HAS TWO EQUAL AND OPPOSITE ENEMIES
The ancient church father Tertullian is reputed to have said, "Just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, so the gospel is ever crucified between these two errors." What are these errors to which Tertullian was referring? I often call them religion and irreligion; the theological terms are legalism and antinomianism. Another way to describe them could be moralism and relativism (or pragmatism).
These two errors constantly seek to corrupt the message and steal away from us the power of the gospel. Legalism says that we have to live a holy, good life in order to be saved. Antinomianism says that because we are saved, we don't have to live a holy, good life.
This is the location of the "tip of the spear" of the gospel. A very clear and sharp distinction between legalism, antinomianism, and the gospel is often crucial for the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit to work. If our gospel message even slightly resembles "you must believe and live right to be saved" or "God loves and accepts everyone just as they are," we will find our communication is not doing the identity-changing, heart-shaping transformative work described in the next part of this book. If we just preach general doctrine and ethics from Scripture, we are not preaching the gospel. The gospel is the good news that God has accomplished our salvation for us through Christ in order to bring us into a right relationship with him and eventually to destroy all the results of sin in the world.
Still, it can be rightly argued that in order to understand all this — who God is, why we need salvation, what he has done to save us — we must have knowledge of the basic teachings of the entire Bible. J. Gresham Machen, for example, speaks of the biblical doctrines of God and of man to be the "presuppositions of the gospel." This means that an understanding of the Trinity, of Christ's incarnation, of original sin and sin in general — are all necessary. If we don't understand, for example, that Jesus was not just a good man but the second person of the Trinity, or if we don't understand what the "wrath of God" means, it is impossible to understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Not only that, but the New The gospel is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel. Testament constantly explains the work of Christ in Old Testament terms — in the language of priesthood, sacrifice, and covenant.
In other words, we must not just preach the Bible in general; we must preach the gospel. Yet unless those listening to the message understand the Bible in general, they won't grasp the gospel. The more we understand the whole corpus of biblical doctrine, the more we will understand the gospel itself—and the more we understand the gospel, the more we will come to see that this is, in the end, what the Bible is really about. Biblical knowledge is necessary for the gospel and distinct from the gospel, yet it so often stands in when the gospel is not actually present that people have come to mistake its identity.
THE GOSPEL HAS CHAPTERS
So, the gospel is good news—it is not something we do but something that has been done for us. Simple enough. But when we ask questions like "Good news about what?" or "Why is it good news?" the richness and complexity of the gospel begin to emerge.
There are two basic ways to answer the question "What is the gospel?" One is to offer the biblical good news of how you can get right with God. This is to understand the question to mean, "What must I do to be saved?" The second is to offer the biblical good news of what God will fully accomplish in history through the salvation of Jesus. This is to understand the question as "What hope is there for the world?"
If we conceive the question in the first, more individualistic way, we explain how a sinful human being can be reconciled to a holy God and how his or her life can be changed as a result. It is a message about individuals. The answer can be outlined: Who God is, what sin is, who Christ is and what he did, and what faith is. These are basically propositions. If we conceive of the question in the second way, to ask all that God is going to accomplish in history, we explain where the world came from, what went wrong with it, and what must happen for it to be mended. This is a message about the world. The answer can be outlined: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. These are chapters in a plotline, a story.
As we will see in the next chapter, there is no single way to present the biblical gospel. Yet I urge you to try to be as thoughtful as possible in your gospel presentations. The danger in answering only the first question ("What must I do to be saved?") without the second ("What hope is there for the world?") is that, standing alone, the first can play into the Western idea that religion exists to provide spiritual goods that meet individual spiritual needs for freedom from guilt and bondage. It does not speak much about the goodness of the original creation or of God's concern for the material world, and so this conception may set up the listener to see Chris tian ity as sheer escape from the world. But the danger in conceiving the gospel too strictly as a story line of the renewal of the world is even greater. It tells listeners about God's program to save the world, but it does not tell them how to actually get right with God and become part of that program. In fact, I'll say that without the first message, the second message is not the gospel. J. I. Packer writes these words:
In recent years, great strides in biblical theology and contemporary canonical exegesis have brought new precision to our grasp of the Bible's overall story of how God's plan to bless Israel, and through Israel the world, came to its climax in and through Christ. But I do not see how it can be denied that each New Testament book, whatever other job it may be doing, has in view, one way or another, Luther's primary question: how may a weak, perverse, and guilty sinner find a gracious God? Nor can it be denied that real Christianity only really starts when that discovery is made. And to the extent that modern developments, by filling our horizon with the great metanarrative, distract us from pursuing Luther's question in personal terms, they hinder as well as help in our appreciation of the gospel.
Still, the Bible's grand narrative of cosmic redemption is critical background to help an individual get right with God. One way to proceed is to interleave the two answers to the "What is the gospel?" question so that gospel truths are laid into a story with chapters rather than just presented as a set of propositions. The narrative approach poses the questions, and the propositional approach supplies the answers.
Excerpted from Center Church by Timothy Keller Copyright © 2012 by Redeemer City to City and Timothy J. Keller. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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